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Who Invented the Thumb Force?

In 2000, at a alternate honest in Germany, an vague Singapore firm called Hurry 2000 unveiled a solid-insist reminiscence chip encased in plastic and associated to a Celebrated Serial Bus (USB) connector. The system, roughly the dimensions of a pack of chewing gum, held 8 megabytes of info and required no external energy source, drawing energy at present from a pc when associated. It turn out to be as soon as called the ThumbDrive.

That tool, now identified by a diversity of names—together with reminiscence stick, USB stick, flash pressure, besides as thumb pressure—changed the potential pc files are saved and transferred. On the original time it’s acquainted worldwide.


The thumb pressure turn out to be as soon as an quick hit, garnering a host of of orders for samples within hours. Later that year, Hurry went public on the Singapore inventory change, and in four months—from April thru July 2000—it manufactured and sold bigger than 100,000 ThumbDrives below its own impress.

Ethical-bye, floppy disk

Before the invention of the thumb pressure, pc users saved and transported their files the usage of floppy disks. Developed by IBM within the 1960s, first 8-slouch and later 5 ¼-slouch and 3 ½-slouch floppy disks changed cassette tapes as doubtlessly the most realistic transportable storage media. Floppy disks were restricted by their moderately slight storage skill—even double-sided, double-density disks might perchance perchance presumably store biggest 1.44 MB of info.

In some unspecified time in the future of the Nineties, as the dimensions of files and power increased, pc corporations looked for alternatives. Deepest pc programs within the slack 1980s started incorporating CD-ROM drives, but first and important these might perchance perchance presumably study biggest from prerecorded disks and might perchance perchance also merely silent now not store person-generated info. The Iomega Zip Force, called a “superfloppy” pressure and launched in 1994, might perchance perchance presumably store up to 750 MB of info and turn out to be as soon as writable, but it never won well-liked popularity, partly as a result of competitors from more cost effective and increased-skill anxious drives.

Pc users badly well-known an economical, excessive-skill, legitimate, transportable storage tool. The thumb pressure turn out to be as soon as all that—and more. It turn out to be as soon as slight ample to walk in a front pocket or grasp from a keychain, and sturdy ample to be rattled spherical in a drawer or tote with out harm. With all these advantages, it successfully ended the period of the floppy disk.

$7 billion

In 2021, global sales of thumb drives from all producers surpassed $7 billion, a host that is expected to upward thrust to bigger than $10 billion by 2028.

But Hurry 2000 in most cases grew to turn out to be a household establish. And the inventor of the thumb pressure and Hurry’s CEO, Henn Tan, did now not turn out to be besides-known as other hardware pioneers contend with Robert Noyce, Douglas Engelbart, or Steve Jobs. Even in his dwelling of Singapore, few folk know of Tan or Hurry.

Why aren’t they more well-known? Finally, mainstream corporations together with IBM, TEAC, Toshiba, and, within the slay, Verbatim licensed Hurry’s know-how for their own reminiscence stick gadgets. And a host of different corporations trusty copied Tan with out permission or acknowledgment.

Competing claims in regards to the reminiscence stick’s origin

Thumbdrives photographed from below to conception contend with a series of skyscrapers. Maurizio Di Iorio

The story of the thumb pressure unearths mighty about innovation within the silicon age. Seldom enact we attribute innovations in digital know-how to one particular person or firm. They stem as a substitute from tightly knit networks of folk and corporations working cooperatively or in competitors, with advances made incrementally. And this incremental nature of innovation potential that controlling the unfold, manufacturing, and further construction of most recent ideas is practically most now not going.

So it’s now not gleaming that overlapping and competing claims encompass the origin of the thumb pressure.

In April 1999, the Israeli firm M-Systems filed a patent utility titled “Architecture for a Celebrated Serial Bus-basically basically based PC flash disk.” This turn out to be as soon as granted to Amir Ban, Dov Moran, and Oron Ogdan in November 2000. In 2000, IBM started selling M-Systems’ 8-MB storage gadgets within the US below the less-than-memorable establish DiskOnKey. IBM has its own explain to the invention of an facet of the tool, according to a year-2000 confidential interior file written by one in all its workers, Shimon Shmueli. A slight less credibly, inventors in Malaysia and China own also claimed to be the important to reach reduction up with the thumb pressure.

The well-known substances were in actual fact ripe for picking within the slack Nineties. Flash reminiscence grew to turn out to be cheap and tough ample for person use by 1995. The circulation of info thru the World Wide Web, together with tool and music, turn out to be as soon as exploding, rising a requirement for transportable info storage.

When know-how pushes and consumers pull, an invention can seem, in retrospect, practically inevitable. And all the purported inventors might perchance perchance presumably in actual fact own reach up with the identical very well-known tool independently. But now not one in all the many honest tales of invention paint somewhat as obvious an origin story—or had as mighty impression on the unfold of the thumb pressure—as the story of Tan in Singapore.

Henn Tan: From truant to entrepreneur

Man with glasses sits in build of dwelling of enterprise chair surrounded by build of dwelling of enterprise furniture and pc terminalsHenn Tan, proven right here in 2017, fought a series of largely shedding battles in opposition to folk that pirated Hurry 2000’s ThumbDrive impression and in opposition to rival patent claims. Yen Meng Jiin/Singapore Press/AP

Tan, the third of six brothers, turn out to be as soon as born and raised in a kampung (village) within the neighborhood of Geylang, Singapore. His fogeys, working anxious to form ends meet, on a conventional basis left Tan and his brothers by myself to creep the streets.

The first in his family to reduction excessive school, Tan like a flash fell in with a rebellious crowd, skipping school to grasp spherical at roadside “sarabat” (drink) stalls, dressed in “shaggy embroidered denims, imbibing coffee and cigarettes, and tossing his lengthy mane as he polemicized about rock music and human rights,” according to a 2001 article within the Straits Times. After a caning for truancy in his third year of excessive school that served as a take-heed name, Tan settled all the strategy in which down to his stories and done his O-level exams. He entered the Nationwide Service in 1973 as a military police teacher, and after serving the well-known two years, he took a job as a machinist at a German multinational firm.

This wasn’t a uncommon job at the time. Within the slack 1960s Singapore had embarked on a wreck program of industrialization, providing incentives to multinational corporations, particularly in such excessive-tech fields as electronics and semiconductors, to build of dwelling up factories on the island. By the early Seventies, Singapore turn out to be as soon as dwelling to manufacturing plant life for Fairchild Semiconductor, Frequent Electric, Hewlett Packard, and Texas Instruments, amongst others, joined by Matsushita (now Panasonic) in 1973 and Nippon Electric Company (now NEC) in 1977.

Tan diligently saved cash to pay for riding classes. As soon as he had his license, NEC’s semiconductors division employed him as a sales govt. Three years later, in 1980, he moved to Sanyo as a regional sales supervisor. Over the next 15 years, he rose to the unsuitable of sales director, accumulating a wealth of journey within the electronics alternate, together with connections to masses of suppliers and customers.

The Asian electronics alternate takes off

In 1995, Tan resigned from Sanyo and bought Hurry, a slight, family-bustle electronics instruct shopping and selling firm in his broken-down neighborhood of Geylang, for trusty shy of US $1 million. He planned to have products to license or sell to one or more of the many abundant multinationals in Singapore.

Meanwhile, worldwide sales of pc instruments had began to converse. Even supposing personal pc programs and varied transportable pc programs had been spherical for the reason that slack Seventies, both Apple and IBM launched flagship laptops in 1991 and 1992, respectively. Along with the recognition of laptops came a increasing demand for peripherals equivalent to shows, modems, printers, keyboards, mice, graphics adapters, anxious drives, CD-ROM drives, and floppy drives. The dot-com converse of 1995 to 2000 further increased demand for personal computing equipment.

“Clones, in a technique, are marvelous….it intended it’s top to own a correct notion and it’s seemingly you’ll merely silent form doubtlessly the most of it, as like a flash as seemingly.”—Henn Tan, as instructed to the Straits Times

Many of those electronics products, together with the chips in them, were produced in Asia, together with Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand—and Singapore—below the OEM intention. These “normal instruments producers” made pc programs for Apple, Dell, and other corporations who outsourced the production of their designs.

By the mid-Nineties, Singapore had turn out to be a extraordinarily well-known hub for electronics manufacturing, together with anxious drives and semiconductor wafers, and the island had a well-known and lengthening electronics ecosystem with impression and production expertise.

Toshiba affords Tan his gigantic destroy

All this declare, nonetheless, did now not receive a straightforward route for Tan. Many of his broken-down contacts from Sanyo wouldn’t enact alternate with a no-establish contend with Hurry. And few proficient engineers desired to work for a firm that regarded to provide slight guarantee of lengthy-duration of time employment. But Tan persevered, and after two years, in 1998, he bought his gigantic destroy: Toshiba Electronics in Singapore appointed Hurry as an first price impression dwelling, an agreement in which Hurry would impression and form products to be sold below the Toshiba impress.

In explicit, Toshiba wanted an MP3 participant, a compact and conveyable solid-insist tool that might perchance perchance duplicate music files from a pc, to which it might perchance perchance in all probability presumably be associated thru a USB scoot, and then play the music reduction. Even though this turn out to be as soon as before Apple’s 2001 iPod made these gadgets well-liked worldwide, a desire of MP3 gamers of more than a couple of quality were already within the marketplace within the slack Nineties.

Because the originator of flash reminiscence, Toshiba manufactured storage chips old in personal pc programs, laptops, and digital cameras. Toshiba also made transportable radios and converse boxes. It wasn’t outlandish that the firm desired to soar into the MP3-participant fray.

But Tan reasoned that “if the firm trusty manufactured the participant, it might perchance perchance in all probability presumably now not form a host of cash,” according to a 2005 article within the Straits Times. Tan notion that by leaving out the ability to play music, the tool would turn out to be more versatile, ready to contend with now not trusty MP3s but additionally text, spreadsheets, photos—to any extent further or less pc file. Many corporations were already selling music gamers, but an economical, USB-pushed, versatile storage tool might perchance perchance presumably desire a vivid bigger market, Tan suspected, and he might perchance perchance also very well be first to tap it.

Tan did give Toshiba its music participant. But he also build of dwelling his engineers to work on a product that turn out to be as soon as in actual fact a music participant with out the participant. The result turn out to be as soon as the thumb pressure.

From well-liked product to pirate battle

a block design with the words USB Connector, D12 (Driver), Micro-Controller, Flash Memory, Additional USB port, ROM, RAM, and Entertaining-lock Swap performing in particular person rectanglesHurry’s patent utility for the ThumbDrive incorporated this drawing.

Getting to a working product turn out to be as soon as now not trivial—the pressure required now not biggest the correct mixture of hardware but additionally particularly designed firmware that allowed the solid-insist storage to work alongside with a diversity of pc working programs.

But the thumb pressure, with its flash reminiscence and USB interface, turn out to be as soon as in most cases a actually original invention. Tan did now not create flash reminiscence, which turn out to be as soon as the brainchild of Toshiba engineer Fujio Masuoka in 1980. Nor did he create the USB port, which had been spherical since 1996. What turn out to be as soon as original turn out to be as soon as the mix of the USB with flash reminiscence plus a controller and acceptable firmware, all sealed into a plastic case to form a marketable person product.

Native instances can biggest partly verbalize why the thumb pressure came to be invented the build and when it did: Tan’s journey at NEC and Sanyo, Hurry’s contract with Toshiba, and the connections Hurry’s engineers had made one day of outdated internships at other corporations in Singapore were all well-known. Those identical elements, nonetheless, also made the invention complicated to manipulate. Once the conclusion of the thumb pressure turn out to be as soon as available, many electronics corporations straight build of dwelling to increasing their own variations. Tan had filed a patent utility for his invention a month before the 2000 CeBIT tech honest, but a pending patent did slight to dwell copycats.

Besides to claims by M-Systems and IBM, seemingly doubtlessly the most refined contention came from the Chinese firm Netac Know-how. It also claimed to own invented the flash reminiscence stick. Cheng Xiaohua and Deng Guoshun had beforehand labored for Hurry and had considered some construction boards associated to flash reminiscence. They returned to Shenzhen, China, and founded Netac in 1999.

Shenzhen at the time turn out to be as soon as a hotbed of electronics copycatting—DVD gamers, mobile phones, MP3 gamers, and a host of different person electronics were produced as “shanzhai” items, outdoor the limits of intellectual property laws. Netac’s explain to (and production of) its thumb pressure match this sample of appropriation.

Netac and Hurry therefore even entered into an agreement below which Hurry would fund a couple of of Netac’s examine and construction and Hurry would impression rights to form and distribute the resulting products outdoor of China. Despite this collaboration, Netac therefore sought and turn out to be as soon as granted a patent on the thumb pressure within China.

Henn Tan notion that by leaving out the ability to play music, the tool would turn out to be more versatile.

Electronics pirates spherical the arena then went after the thumb pressure. Tan fought them anxious and each occasionally won. Had Hurry been a higher firm with more resources and more patent journey, the story might perchance perchance presumably need had a particular ending. As it turn out to be as soon as, though, Hurry’s patents stood on moderately venerable floor. Foundation in 2002, Tan introduced swimsuit in Singapore in opposition to a handful of corporations (together with Electec, FE World Electronics, M-Systems, and Ritronics Parts) for patent infringement. After several years of court docket battles and a host of of thousands of bucks in correct costs, Hurry won that case, persuading the convey that his ThumbDrive turn out to be as soon as the important tool ever designed to be plugged at present into a pc with out the need for a cable. An appeals court docket within the United Kingdom, nonetheless, turn out to be as soon as now not persuaded, and Hurry lost its patent there in 2008. Tan also pursued, with slight success, claims at the US World Change Commission in opposition to other corporations, together with Imation, IronKey, Patriot, and Verbatim. But even the decision in Singapore turn out to be as soon as slight bigger than an ethical victory. By the slack 2000s, millions of thumb drives had already been produced, by an extraordinarily good deal of corporations, with out Hurry’s license.

“Clones,” Tan instructed the Straits Times in 2005, “in a technique, are marvelous. Within the alternate world, particularly must you would be in Asia, as lengthy as anything makes a profit, you enact it.” If somebody were copying you, Tan reasoned, “it intended it’s top to own a correct notion and it’s seemingly you’ll merely silent form doubtlessly the most of it, as like a flash as seemingly.”

Within the slay, Tan and Hurry turned their consideration to original products, each making improvements to a slight on the wonderful. By 2010, Hurry had developed one other pioneering tool—the Flu Force or Flu Card. This modified thumb pressure might perchance perchance presumably also wirelessly transmit info between gadgets or to the cloud. Even supposing Tan silent attempted to offer protection to his invention with patents, he had also embraced a brand original route: success thru trusty novelty.

The Flu Card enjoyed modest success. Even supposing now not widely taken up as a stand-by myself tool, its Wi-Fi connectivity made it factual for person electronics gadgets equivalent to cameras and toys. In 2014, Hurry signed offers with Ricoh and Mattel China to license the Flu Card impression.

Hurry also attempted to switch into original markets, with restricted success, together with the Web of Things, cloud know-how, and clinical and wearable gadgets.

Hurry’s struggles and Tan’s tumble

Man with white shirt, tie, and glasses holds thumb pressure labeled SWIPE shut to the digicamHenn Tan holds up a ThumbDrive one day of an interview in Singapore in January 2006.Nicky Loh/Reuters/Alamy

Hurry’s revenue from licensing the ThumbDrive and the Flu Card turn out to be as soon as now not ample to preserve it profitable. But as a substitute of admitting how badly the firm turn out to be as soon as doing, in 2006, Tan and his chief monetary officer started falsifying Hurry’s accounts, deceiving auditors and shareholders. After these misdeeds were revealed by monetary auditors Ernst & Young in 2015, Tan stepped down as chairman and chief govt and in August 2022 pled responsible to falsifying accounts. As of this writing, Tan stays in penal complicated in Singapore. His son, Wayne Tan, continues as Hurry’s deputy chairman.

Meanwhile, the thumb pressure lives on. Even supposing most of us transmit our files over the Web—both as electronic mail attachments or thru products and companies contend with Google Force and Dropbox—thumb drives (now working to capacities measured in terabytes) dwell a convenient tool for carrying info in our pockets.

They are old as a quick potential to switch a file from one pc to one other, trek out press kits at conferences, lock and unlock pc programs, raise apps to bustle on a shared pc, reduction up scramble documents, and even, each occasionally, store music. They are old for noxious applications besides—stealing files or inserting malware into goal pc programs. And in explain that they are particularly beneficial for the stable switch of encrypted info too gentle to ship over the Web.

In 2021, global sales of the gadgets from all producers surpassed $7 billion, a host that is expected to upward thrust to bigger than $10 billion by 2028, according to Vantage Market Research.

Hero or antihero?

Often, we predict inventors as heroes, boldly going the build no one has gone before. But Tan’s story isn’t that straightforward.

Tan does deserve a build of dwelling in person electronics historic past—he conceived the tool with out seeing one first, made it work, manufactured it in portions, and unfold it broadly, both deliberately thru licensing and unintentionally thru copying. But tubby credit for the thumb pressure in actual fact belongs more to the environment—the ideas circulating at the time and the networks of clients and suppliers—than any particular person.

Furthermore, the conclusion of Tan’s story suggests he’s more antihero than hero. We on the complete esteem inventors for their tenacity and grit. In Tan’s case, these qualities contributed to his downfall. Determined to purchase ethical and monetary credit for the thumb pressure, Tan went to extraordinary lengths—even breaking the regulation—in verbalize to form his firm and himself a success. The thumb pressure presentations how refined tales of invention incessantly are.

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