Are flash drives obsolete?

Flash drives, also known as USB drives, thumb drives, or memory sticks, have become nearly ubiquitous over the past two decades. Originally designed as a portable and reusable alternative to floppy disks, CDs, and DVDs, flash drives rose to prominence in the early 2000s as a convenient way to store and transfer data. Though decreasing in popularity for some time, flash drives are still heavily used today – one 2021 study found that 54 million flash drives were sold globally that year alone. But with the rise of cloud storage and streaming, many wonder if the trusty flash drive may be nearing obsolescence.

Brief History

Flash drives, also known as thumb drives, were invented by Amir Ban, Dov Moran and Oron Ogdan, who all worked for the Israeli company M-Systems, in 1999 1. The original flash drive, called the DiskOnKey, had a capacity of 8 MB and retailed for $30-40 2. At the time, floppy disks which held 1.44 MB were the dominant portable storage medium, so an 8 MB drive was revolutionary. By being able to hold much more data, and through the new USB interface, flash drives disrupted the market and quickly replaced floppy disks and CD-ROMs for portable data transfer.

Peak Popularity

USB flash drives reached the height of their popularity in the mid to late 2000s. According to Wikipedia, capacities on the market increased substantially during this time, with common sizes ranging from 512 MB to 32 GB. By 2010, flash drives with capacities up to 256 GB were available.

During this peak, flash drives became a ubiquitous accessory. Their portability and ease of use made them a convenient way to transfer files between computers and back up data. They were commonly used to store and transport documents, presentations, photos, music, videos, and other personal files. Many people kept flash drives attached to their keychains for on-the-go access. Businesses utilized them for distributing files, media kits, and software. Flash drives were also popular giveaway promotional items due to their usefulness.


Sales and usage of flash drives started to decline around 2012. Several factors contributed to this decline. The rise of cloud storage services like Dropbox, Google Drive, and iCloud provided a convenient alternative for accessing files across devices. Smartphones also became ubiquitous, reducing the need to transfer files via flash drive. As The Verge reported, Western Digital’s flash memory business has declined over 26% in recent quarters as demand dropped. Additionally, faster internet speeds enabled larger files to be transferred online instead of via flash drive. The availability of high-capacity external hard disk drives and microSD cards also competed with flash drives for storage use cases.

Current Usage

Despite the emergence of cloud storage and faster internet connections, USB flash drives still maintain a significant foothold for data transfer and storage needs. According to a 2021 report by LinkedIn, the global market for USB drives is projected to reach $10.75 billion by 2028, up from $7.13 billion in 2021.

Flash drives offer some key benefits that continue to make them useful in the right contexts. Their plug-and-play functionality allows quick and easy file transfers without needing an internet connection. They are small, portable, and durable, making them convenient for transporting files across locations. Many computers and devices still contain USB ports, ensuring compatibility. And with capacities up to 1TB now available, they can hold a substantial amount of data.

Flash drives today are commonly used to transfer photos from cameras, move files between computers, back up documents, install software, and store media collections. They remain essential for many schools and offices that may have limited connectivity options. And for use cases where internet speeds are insufficient or security is a top concern, direct USB file transfer can be significantly faster and safer.

So while cloud storage pushes many files online, flash drives continue serving an important role offline. For portable file storage and transfer, their simplicity and speed keeps them relevant for personal and business needs.

Alternatives to Flash Drives

While flash drives once reigned supreme for portable storage, there are now several alternatives vying to replace USB sticks:

Cloud storage: Services like Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, and iCloud provide abundant online storage accessible from any device. The convenience of automatic syncing and sharing makes cloud storage attractive. However, internet access is required and there are storage limits unless paying for premium plans. Research shows cloud storage adoption continues growing rapidly.

External hard drives: Portable external HDDs now offer massive amounts of storage for reasonable prices. A 1TB portable hard drive costs around the same as a 32GB flash drive. HDDs are more durable and reliable than flash drives. But they are bulkier, require cables, and need file transfer to access data on other devices.

SD cards: While limited to certain devices, the ubiquity of SD card slots in phones, tablets, cameras, and more makes them handy portable storage. High capacity SD cards are affordable and the small size is convenient. However, the cards are delicate and more prone to corruption than flash drives.

Overall, while flash drives once offered an optimal mix of portability, capacity, speed, and price, alternatives now outclass USB sticks in most areas. But flash drives retain niche utility for quickly sharing files between varied devices when internet access is unreliable.

Future Outlook

While flash drives have declined in popularity over the past decade, experts do not believe they will fade away entirely in the future. According to a research report by LinkedIn, the global market for flash USB 3.0 drives is expected to grow at a rate of 6% from 2023-2030 (source). This indicates there is still steady demand in certain use cases.

However, usage will likely evolve as new technologies emerge. As pointed out by TechTarget, flash memory capacities and speeds continue to improve dramatically, which could enable new form factors and use cases (source). Rather than being used for simple data transfer and backup, high-capacity flash drives may serve as expanded storage for bandwidth-intensive media files and applications. They are easy to transport between locations.

Additionally, the plummeting cost per gigabyte could make flash drives more viable as everyday storage devices, especially as a replacement for slower mechanical hard drives. But for now, their relatively small capacities will limit them to specialized roles. In the long run, future breakthroughs in non-volatile memory technologies, such as phase change memory, could allow flash drives to become even faster, cheaper, and more energy efficient.

Use Cases Where Flash Still Reigns

Though flash drives are no longer as universally used as they once were, there remain certain use cases where they still offer unique benefits (The Benefits of USB Flash Drives):

Flash drives are still widely used in education, as they are an affordable way for students to transport files between school and home. Teachers also rely on flash drives to distribute materials to students.

Flash drives excel for transferring large files or batches of files between computers, especially between devices that are not networked. The plug-and-play functionality makes transfers quick and convenient.

Portability and ease of sharing make flash drives well-suited for distributing presentations, documents, photos, videos and other files at conferences, trade shows, and business meetings.

Flash drives are useful as backup storage for important personal files like documents, photos and videos. The ability to easily detach the drive provides security if a computer is lost, stolen or crashes.

Bootable flash drives that allow running an operating system or utility software provide flexibility for maintenance, troubleshooting, or accessing files from a computer that won’t boot normally.

Overall, the simplicity, speed, portability and low cost of flash drives keep them relevant for a variety of everyday file storage and transfer needs.

Tips for Flash Drive Usage

Even though flash drives are no longer as ubiquitous as they once were, they can still be useful storage devices if used properly. Here are some tips for getting the most out of flash drives today:

Choose a high-quality drive from a reputable brand like SanDisk or Kingston. Higher-end models will be more durable and reliable. Look for drives with metal casings rather than plastic.

Always safely eject the drive before removing it from your computer to prevent corruption. On Windows, use the “Safely Remove Hardware” icon in the system tray. On Macs, eject the drive by dragging it to the Trash.

Enable encryption like BitLocker on Windows or FileVault on Mac to secure the data on the drive. This will prevent unauthorized access if the drive is lost or stolen. You can also use third-party encryption software like VeraCrypt.

Consider using a drive with built-in password protection. Some flash drives allow you to set a password that must be entered before accessing data on the drive.

Avoid storing your only copy of important files on a flash drive. The small physical size makes them easy to misplace and they can fail unexpectedly. Always back up your data.

Handle the drive carefully and avoid dropping it or getting it wet to prevent physical damage. Don’t leave the drive in hot places like cars.

Regularly scan the drive with antivirus software to check for malware. Only use the drive with computers you trust.

Avoid using public computers to access your flash drive. The computer may be infected with malware that could spread to the drive.

Store flash drives in a safe, dry place when not in use. Consider a case or pouch to protect them.


In summary, flash drives rose to immense popularity in the 2000s as an easy way to store and transfer files between computers. While other technologies like cloud storage and external SSDs have eaten into flash drive market share, flash drives still retain some key advantages. Their small size, universal compatibility, and ability to work offline mean flash drives still serve an important niche, especially for tech novices, students, and business travelers. Though no longer the primary portable storage medium for most mainstream users, flash drives are far from obsolete. With large storage capacities, high speeds, and encryption available on modern models, flash drives can remain a handy and versatile tech tool when used selectively for the right purposes.

The verdict is that flash drives are not obsolete, but simply more targeted in their use cases today. For quick file transfers, booting Linux distributions, devices unconnected to the internet, and user-friendly portable storage, flash drives still deliver utility and value. As long as we have computers with USB ports, flash drives will continue serving an important secondary storage role. However, for daily storage needs for large files like photos, videos, and backups, cloud services and external SSDs are generally better options.