Thumb-Thing Good

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Not that long ago, computers were the size of a room, and that room needed special cooling. Now imagine a computer the size of your thumb.

The petite, data-storing thumb drive plugged into a USB port initially only stored data. Even so, it was as big a functional breakthrough as virtually any previous storage medium. A gigabyte or more of data was held in a device shorter than a cigarette–and not much wider.

Shorthand reporters instantly took to it. Road warriors took to it. Even within a single law office, a data-only thumb drive is a wonderful tool for backup of critical documents or for installing certain programs on multiple machines.

Then the revolutionary idea of running software from a thumb drive began. In 2004 the Firefox Web browser was tweaked to run on one. Once that concept was proven, why stop there?

Tiny Dynamo

Portable core programs on thumb drives extend data portability to the ultimate. You can have in your pocket a fully functional version of OpenOffice, giving you a Microsoft Office-compatible suite set to your preferences.

But most impressive to us is Lotus Nomad. Plug a 1 gig (or half-gig) USB thumb drive into any computer and Nomad presents a fully functional Lotus Notes desktop. It will even run Domino Designer for those who want to program.

Our jaws dropped when we first saw this (and we don’t easily drop our jaws). Not only was everything there, but the speed was good. If the computer had an Internet connection, not only were the calendar and e-mail accessible, but so were all our Lotus Notes databases–running off the server in our office. We have a paper-free law office that scans 99.9 percent of its paper into databases. Now our entire office is accessible from a $20 thumb drive.

Even without an Internet connection, the current generation of thumb drives has enough storage to take along a few critical databases. Work to your heart’s content locally, saving to the thumb drive, and then replicate the updates the next time you have an Internet or network connection. Virtually no trace of what you do stays on the computer you plugged the thumb drive into. Nomad installs items into the host computer registry and then removes them when you unplug.

One can also run DSL (“damn small Linux,” not the digital subscriber line used to provide Internet access). Presumably, having an entire operating system on the thumb drive provides some separation between it and the computer it plugs into. Have you ever done banking online from a computer that you don’t own? If you must use someone else’s computer, it’s better to do it from a thumb drive plugged into that foreign computer.

Free and Easier

Most software you are likely to put onto a thumb drive is free. One option, the PortableApps Suite, brags that it “contains no spyware. There are no advertisements. It isn’t a limited or trial version. There is no additional hardware or software to buy. You don’t even have to give out your e-mail address. It’s 100 percent free to use, free to copy and free to share.” PortableApps Suite includes a Web browser, e-mail client, office suite, calendar/scheduler, instant messaging client, anti-virus protection, backup utility–even a sudoku game.

VLC media player is another good tool to have, as is GIMP for photo editing. And you might want to try Foxit Reader for viewing and printing PDFs. All come at no cost. You can get up to 80 gigs of storage if you run your personal “portable apps” from an iPod instead of a computer. And with the iPod, assuming you would be carrying it anyway, there is no extra baggage.

Less may be more, so if you are tired of lugging boat anchors through airports, give less a chance. Bring a thumb drive. Or maybe use portable applications as an excuse to buy an iPod. Shedding weight gives one an entirely different outlook.

For more information, go to these Web addresses: portableapps.com and snapfiles.com/features/ed_usb_software.

David Beckman and David Hirsch are lawyers in the firm of Beckman & Hirsch in Burlington, Iowa. You can contact Beckman by e-mail at [email protected] and Hirsch at [email protected]

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