My Missoulian column for 8/26/07:
Be portable with flash drives and open source software.
Go in any of the big box stores on North Reserve and you’ll find flash drives. They’re called thumb drives, flash drives, memory sticks, but they all work the same for storage of word processing files, music, movies and anything else digital. It’s a digital world, and flash drives are one way to keep your files in your pocket.
Flash drives use the same memory chips as memory cards for digital cameras and other devices, but have the extra stuff necessary to plug them directly into the USB port of a laptop or PC and appear as a drive the desktop. Flash drives have only been around since 2000, and now they seem indispensable for school and business. You might have a freebie flash drive with someone’s business logo on it, or a plastic toy with a drive; I have a Swiss Army knife with a built-in flash drive.
Of course, flash drives are mostly used for moving files around, but they really come into their own when you use them with portable applications. Portable applications are just what they sound like: portable versions of the programs on your laptop or desktop PC. What’s so good about carrying programs around on a flash drive?
Do you work at a public computer at the library or an internet cafe, or use a friends PC? If so, take all your files and applications along on a flash drive and not leave anything on the host computer. You can do your word processing, your spreadsheets, web browsing and email on a flash drive, and keep it all – cache, passwords, files – on that flash drive, no matter where you go. And it fits in your pocket. Traveling? Take a flash drive with portable applications in your passport wallet and be able to work anywhere.
There are two things going on with portable programs: the flash drive, which you know about already, and open source software, which you may not know about. The reason why they go together is because you legally need a paid-for license for the copy of the programs you put on the flash drive (like Microsoft Office). Open source programs solve that by being mostly free, and modified to work well on flash drives.
Why free? Open source programs have been developed by programmers around the world working collaboratively, and the result is some of the most secure and stable software that’s available. The programmers can do this because the programming source code is “open,” freely available to everyone to write and modify and fix, as no one company or corporation owns the code.
Maybe you’ve heard of Linux? That’s an open source operating system. There’s much more in the open source world in terms of the programs that you might use, but what we’re concerned about is it’s easier to get open source programs to run on a flash drive, because they can be modified and customized, unlike most “closed” commercial software. There is lots of open source software for both Windows and Macintosh.
But I can’t live with Microsoft Office, you say; I’ll have to copy it or buy it again. Well, you don’t have to, because there’s OpenOffice, an open source office suite that is compatible with files from Microsoft Office, and vice versa. And there are open source web browsers, email clients, and much more. Chances are anything you need to do is covered with open source software, and they can be portable.
How do you get started with open source portable programs on a flash drive? I’d get at least a two gigabyte drive – you can get one for $20 these days – if you just do word processing and some email. But if you do much with digital photos or Powerpoint, you’ll need the capacity, so get a bigger one.
If you use Windows, the portable applications package you want to use is called PortableApps, at http://www.portableapps.com. There’s a list of all the programs available: office suites, web browsers, antivirus, email, music, and all the information you need to make your own flash drive and the user forums when you need help.
How do does it work? Plug in your flash drive and the PortableApps menu window will appear from the icon in the system tray. From there, select your program, add more programs, do whatever you need. Get done, eject from the same menu and you’re on your way with all of your files. If you’re any sort of computer user, you’ll find portable applications fairly intuitive.
With Windows, you’ll need to select your default application on your flash drive the first time you want to double click on a file on your flash drive. When you save a file, be sure the destination is your flash drive, not the hard drive of the PC or the Mac you’re using.
If you use a Macintosh, portable applications are available from FreeSMUG, the Free OpenSource Mac User Group, at http://www.freesmug.org/portableapps. There are office suites, too, for the Mac, and web browsers like Firefox, email clients like Thunderbird, graphics editors, newsreaders, and a program that will sync your portable application files with a non-portable version, if need be. All the Mac programs I tried worked flawlessly.
When you shop for a flash drive, you’ll see some brands have an extra feature called U3. That’s another way of using portable applications, installed on the drive by the manufacturer. U3 has its own programs and installers, and their own website, u3.com. There is some overlap between Windows-only U3 and PortableApps, but all PortableApps are free and open source, and while lots of U3 programs are free, some are not.
If you go U3, you have to stick with what that system offers. If you go with PortableApps or FreeSMUG programs, the overall selection is slightly less, but all programs are free and open source. I prefer plain flash drives, without U3, so I can configure my own copies of PortableApps and FreeSMUG programs.
Some links for the column: