Apps on a stick

A year or so ago, I was visiting with some folks from Microsoft Research, the arm of the company that thinks Big Thoughts about future projects. They were pretty far along on technology for carrying a person's entire Windows desktop around on a USB flash drive. Plug the drive into a kiosk, for example, and run your Windows desktop as a virtual machine.

Anyway, it had been a while since I thought of that project, when last week I received a package in the mail from the USB Flash Drive Alliance. In it was what the alliance calls a 'smart' flash drive, which is to say one that can run hold and run applications on any computer. It was pre-loaded with software called Ceedo, one of a growing number of programs that will allow users to run applications off their USB drives (this week a company called RingCube Technologies is launching something similar at the DEMO Fall Conference in San Diego; InfoWorld blogged about it).

When I plugged in the drive, Autorun brought up the Ceedo application. It looks sort of like the Windows XP Start menu, with links to My Documents, My Pictures and My Music stored on the flash drive. (Pull out the flash drive and all traces of the session disappear.)

Internet Explorer 6 and Outlook Express were already resident and ready for use, but heck, seeing as IE would probably be running on just about any PC kiosk I might encounter, I wanted to add other programs.

Adding programs with Ceedo is done one of two ways. You can download programs from the Ceedo site (these are mostly open-source programs, as you might expect, such as Mozilla Thunderbird, Firefox, GAIM, or freebies like Skype). Or you can use Ceedo's InstallAnything add-on program to take an executable of your own and install it on the device.

Looking over the Ceedo list, I had a hard time finding anything I'd need to have with me wherever I went. Perhaps AbiWord 2.4.5, in the event I came across a PC without a word processing program and needed to bang out stories (but I would have preferred some of the OpenOffice components). Maybe one of the instant-messaging clients. But a media player? Why would I sit at a kiosk and listen to my MP3 files? A game? Perhaps, but I have a hard time seeing it.

So I tried to roll my own apps, with limited success. For instance, I tried to load the latest IE release candidate. It wouldn't load. I sometimes use the free eFax Messenger for managing faxes and thought that would be a great program to have wherever I went. But I couldn't get it installed. The process would simply fail. And it wasn't for lack of space on the 512MB flash drive I'd been provided.

What worked? I was able to get the Juice podcast receiver working. And for kicks I tried an older Firefox version than the one offered by Ceedo, and that worked, too.

But that was it. I didn't necessarily stop there because I'd run out of .EXE files to play with. I just couldn't think of any I might need to run off a USB drive.

That said, there's a lot to like about this type of mobile platform. For instance, a virtual machine running off a flash drive is a more secure way of using a shared PC/kiosk. No sign of the Web sites you visited or the documents you worked on because that information goes away when you unplug.

Expect to see a bunch of similar solutions. And rested assured they'll only get better and more effective.

Posted by Brad Grimes

NEXT STORY: Feds getting comfortable with SOA

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