Over the long weekend I got caught up trying to build a “PC on a Stick”. (This was a level of activity I could cope with while stuffed with turkey.) I’ve seen a lot written lately about portable applications you can put on a USB Drive and carry with you to any Windows PC. I wanted to see how far I could take that. It turns out, pretty damn far. My goal was to create a functionally equivalent portable version of every non-hardware specific piece of software on my PC. I want to be able to just walk up to a PC, plug in the thumb drive in my pocket, and have my whole environment with me. Oh, and I wanted to do it all without spending a dime for software.

Security was also a concern. After all, I wouldn’t want sensitive data in my pocket to get lost or stolen. I was able to easily create a secure vault for data I wouldn’t want anyone who steals my stick to see. I then found an application launcher which fires up on stick insertion. I was able to find portable versions of the whole Mozilla suite (browser, email, calendar) as well as Open Office (similar to Microsoft Office). I was also able to find or easily create web page development tools, an image editor, a photo viewer, a CD/DVD burning tool, a complete suite of PC recovery/repair tools, anti-virus and spyware tools, IM clients, scanning utilities, personal financial tracker (similar to Quicken), a PDF reader/editor, Zip file tool, Media player, Flash creators, script language interpreters, P2P file sharing utilities, file sync tools, and even an SMTP, HTTP, and FTP server that lives on a stick.

There are some functional limitations in some areas. The Quicken alternative does not do automatic updates from financial institutions. The calendar tool will not sync with my Palm. The image editor is a bit more complicated. And because all the applications are held independently on the stick, the integration is pretty manual. That is, if you want to watch a web based video using the portable media player, you need to manually copy the link to the player. But tight integration is not feasible without using the underlying operating system, and that would defeat our portability goal. The only major area where I came up functionally short was in the area of video editing. Although I suspect it wouldn’t be too difficult to get the open source Jahshaka to go portable. However, my enthusiasm was beginning to wane by then. We’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

If you’re inclined to try this yourself, start by downloading the free applications suite available at portableapps.com

The project was a resounding success. All this free capability fits on a 2G stick with almost half of it still empty for files, pictures, data, whatever. Very cool – although perhaps I’m just easily amused.

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