TWO weeks ago, I wrote about portable applications that you can carry in your pocket.
The best program I found for doing this was PortableApps, free software that packs a suite of open source applications – including OpenOffice – into a handy menu that runs straight off any USB flash drive.
This approach to portable computing enables you to take the programs and data files you need with you when you're away from the office, or when you do not have your notebook computer. It's particularly handy when you must make do with a new, barebones computer that has only the operating system installed.
I've also found PortableApps to be useful because it lets me run my personalized version of Firefox –with all the extensions I need already loaded – on somebody else's computer or in an Internet cafe where they might not have the browser installed.
Running programs off a flash drive when you're outside the office makes for good security, too. After you quit, nothing – no data, cookies, backup files or cached browser pages – is left behind on the computer you used. All that's safely tucked away in your flash drive.
PortableApps runs on Windows, making it usable on 90 percent of computers that run one version or another of Microsoft's operating system. Portable applications for Mac OS or Linux would not be all that practical, since the two operating systems account for only about 10 percent of the market.
Curiously, I found that you can run PortableApps on a Linux computer as long as you do it through Wine, a program that interprets Windows commands and executes them in Linux. When I ran it on my Ubuntu Linux PC in this manner, the program behaved well enough, hiding itself away as a clickable icon on the top panel on my desktop, much like it would on the system tray in Windows.
Of course, Wine is not installed by default on most Linux distributions, so running PortableApps this way would still be a hit-or-miss affair. Would not it be simpler if you could run the operating system right off a flash drive and bring the programs and data you need on the same stick?
As it turns out, it is possible.
For the longest time, I've heard of people running Damn Small Linux (only 50 megabytes!) Or PuppyLinux on flash drives. But a cursory look at these distributions convinced me they were a bit more spartan than I would like.
I found a tutorial on installing Ubuntu on a flash drive, but the process was complicated and entailed using a modified version of the operating system.
One of the easiest approaches I found came from a Web site called Pendrive Linux ( http://pendrvelinux.com/ ), which documents several ways to run a variety of Linux distributions on portable USB devices. The one I chose was Pen Drive Linux, a package based purely on Debian Linux, which is also the basis for Ubuntu. To install Pen Drive Linux, you need three things: a USB 2.0 flash drive with at least 1 gigabyte, a copy of Pen Drive Linux (402 MB, available on the site); and a Linux PC.
There are two caveats. First, you will have to use the command line or terminal, but this is not difficult if you follow the instructions step by step. Seccond, and more importantly, you could accidently wipe out your hard disk instead of formatting the USB drive if you're not careful – so you really have to be aware of what you're doing.
Creating the boot flash drive took about 10 to 15 minutes. The last step was to set up my PC to boot first from the USB flash drive (instead of the hard drive or the CD-ROM drive) – something that most modern PCs motherboards will let you do through the BIOS setup.
Eagerly, I restored my PC with the flash drive plugged in – and in a few minutes, I was up and running using Pen Drive Linux, which looks a lot like Ubuntu. Performance was snappy, and I hardly noticed that I was not running off the hard disk.
I changed the desktop wallpaper and screen saver, installed some software and tweaked Firefox (called Iceweasel, for some strange reason), then rebooted to see if the changes would stick. They did, so now I have a portable yet feature-rich Linux system in my pocket that I can boot on most PCs – even if they have Windows installed.