Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Writing Environment for Multiple Untrusted Computers

Technique Tuesday

Last week we looked at Dropbox, a service that synchronizes files among multiple computers. It makes life much easier if you want to work on the same project on several different computers. It also has the side-effect of providing an evergreen backup.

But what if you need to use multiple computers that you don't control or don't want to leave your data on (because, for example, other people use them too)?

A thumb drive is the obvious answer for the data, and now there's a lovely, open-source way to take take your favorite programs along too called Portable Apps. The PortableApp platform allows you to run applications from a thumb drive on any Windows computer without first having to install them on the host system.

Setting up a thumb drive to run PortableApps is simply a matter of downloading and running the appropriate install package. PortableApps is available as a platform (with no bundled software) or as a suite (with a browser, email client, virus checker, etc.). The installation only adds software to your thumb drive so you don't have to worry that your files will be erased (although a backup is always a good idea before you make major changes like this).

I installed PortableApps on a thumb drive because I found another full-screen text editor, named Q10 that I wanted to use. Q10 is a lot like WriteMonkey in that it gives you a full screen to fill with text without distractions. Q10 is available in standard and portable versions.

The process for installing a package like Q10 on your PortableApp platform is also straightforward. Simply download the PortableApps version of the application, select Options | Add a New App |  Install from the PortableApps Menu, and select the file you downloaded. (Installable PortableApps packages will have "*.paf.exe" as their file extension.)

In the interest of full disclosure, you don't really need the PortableApps platform to run Q10. Q10 is a stand-along application (i.e., it doesn't need to be installed). But it is a good way to demonstrate how you can create a custom environment with PortableApps.

I was pleasantly surprised by how useful I found the PortableApps/Q10 combination. I recommend something like this if you need to work on multiple, untrusted computers.

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net