Virtual Portable Desktop

We now have a confluence of technologies which make it possible to do pretty much any “desktop” task on the web.

We now have a confluence of technologies which make it possible to do pretty much any “desktop” task on the web. There are two reasons to do something like this:

  1. You use more than one computer on a regular basis. You use more than one computer even once in a while (how annoying is it to be helping your mother-in-law with some project, only to discover that a file that would have been useful is sitting securely on your home disk drive?).
  2. You want to be able to get work done on another computer without leaving a trace. This does not need to be for nefarious reasons–some people can get particular about what URLS are in their address bar. Or perhaps you just prefer Firefox (You do, don’t you?) and don’t want to have to install it on your dad’s computer just to browse a bit.

If you want to satisfy requirement 2, then you’ll need to get a small USB thumb drive. The size will largely depend on your budget, but even 64MB should work. You’ll then need to install Portable Firefox on the drive. Once you’ve done that, you can do pretty much anything on the web. Here are some of the resources I’ve found that are typically thought of as Desktop functions.

Word Processing
With the invention of you can now create PDF documents in a completely web-based environment. No software to install. No plugins. Nothing.

You could also choose to use Portable OpenOffice. However, this requires over 90MB on your USB drive.

Of course, with a web browser installed on your USB drive, you can use any web based e-mail in the world. They are getting better and better every day. With Yahoo or GMail, you can get gigabytes of storage for free. If the current web-based e-mail you have access to doesn’t have this kind of access, consider Yahoo or GMail for reasons detailed below (see Storage). If you don’t already have a GMail account, you might be able to get an invite here. Google has been trying to shut down these services, so you may have to search for “gmail invites” (ironically enough) on Google.

Photo Editing
For simple photo editing tasks, there are a lot of web-based utilities.

  • Flickr lets you store and edit your photos “indefinitely”. With their free account, you can access only 200 photos. With their pay account ($25/yr), you get unlimited storage. The editing capabilities are very rudimentary, but it is any easy place to park the photos.
  • Services like Snapfish and Shutterfly are intended to let you order prints. However, they also provide some basic editing tools and free storage.

I know there are better tools out there…. let me know through the comments.

File Storage
The simplest way to store files is to buy a USB drive that is big enough to hold them. But, if you run out of space, here are some techniques that can work in a pinch.

  • Any Yahoo account has immediate access to Yahoo! Briefcase which comes with 30MB storage for free. You can also create an account just for this if you want.
  • If you have a Yahoo or GMail e-mail account, you can attach files to e-mails, then save them as draft. Your attachments are limited to 10MB each, but that is a lot of files before you get close to gigabytes.
  • There are many services who will let you store files on-line for a fee. Just search for “web file storage”.

New Readers
Historically, RSS/Atom feed news readers have been PC based. This is fine if you only ever use one PC. Fortunately there are now web-based news readers so that you can read your current feeds no matter where you are. I haven’t used either of these yet, but they turned up in a Google search for “web-based rss reader” so that must make them credible: Bloglines and RocketInfo. If you have your own web space, and are not intimidated by installing a PHP/MySQL solution, check out Feed On Feeds. This is my personal solution, and I have been very happy with it.

Bookmark Storage
Even if you do nothing else, you need to have a centralized place to store all the bookmarks for the resource above, and all the other cool tidbits you find. The best solution I’ve found so far is One of the best features is “tags” which do away the whole folder structure so often found in the favorites of browsers. It is also a way to discern the zeitgeist of the users at present because you can see what sites are popular right now. I use to to keep a kind of running journal of what I’ve been interested in. I don’t care if I have thousands of bookmarks on because they are easy to manage. You couldn’t do that with standard browser bookmark functionality. No matter how you slice it, you should check out for no other reason than to keep your bookmarks in one place.

What Else?

There are hundreds of apps out there that are web based that used to be thought of as only installed on a computer. Do you have ideas? Wouldn’t it be cool to aggregate them all into one “Desktop” user interface?

Additional Tools
There are a ton of additional programs that could be added to a USB drive. Check here and here.

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