Internet Tips: Internet-on-a-Stick: Mail, Calendar, and Bookmarks

For better or for worse, I am married to my e-mail. Wherever I go--to the library, on a business trip, for a visit with relatives, or on a journey to Baja--I check my e-mail compulsively. Unfortunately, Microsoft Outlook with its nicely sorted, spam-cleansed inbox, address book, appointments, and sent-mail folder remains behind on my office computer. When I return from my travels, I often have to download the same e-mail messages all over again. And whether I took a laptop with me or used only my ISP's Web e-mail interface, Outlook contains no record of the messages I sent from the road.

Browsing from other people's PCs was just as inconvenient as e-mailing from them. On my office machine, I logged in to a dozen or so personalized sites multiple times each day. Firefox's bookmarks toolbar brimmed with links to my oft-visited sites, which include Gmail, Craigslist, and other sites for news, investments, banking, and research. And the toolbar's password manager knew all my log-ins, simplifying access nicely. Too bad I lost those amenities when I left the house. When I browse from a computer at the local library or at an airport kiosk, for instance, I have no idea what the addresses of some of my lifeline Web sites are--much less my user name and password at them.

But suddenly, all of that has changed. Thanks to a USB flash drive, and to the efforts of the Mozilla Foundation and a New York City-based Web designer named John Haller, my e-mail and browsing have gone fully mobile. Haller has repackaged Mozilla's free Firefox Web browser, Thunderbird e-mail program, and Sunbird appointment calendar as portable applications that you can install and run from any sufficiently large USB flash drive (a 512MB drive does the trick for me). Alternatively, you can run these applications from a flash memory card, a Zip drive, or even an IPod or other audio player that doubles as an external hard drive (see Figure 1

FIGURE 1: A USB flash drive like this SanDisk 512MB Cruzer Micro ($55 list price) lets you carry your e-mail inbox, calendar, bookmarks, and passwords with you, wherever you go.
).

And though it's beyond the scope of this column, Haller has created a portable version of Mozilla's Nvu Web page editor. This version is aimed at people who need to update their Web sites from the field.

Internet to Go

Though the mobile Mozilla suite isn't perfect--yet--making the switch from Outlook and my ISP's Web e-mail interface to portable versions of Firefox, Thunderbird, and Sunbird has simplified my life. Now, wherever I go, whether I I'm schlepping along a laptop or using a USB-endowed public computer, I have my inbox, appointments, bookmarks, and passwords with me, even when I'm disconnected from the Internet.

And when I return to my office, I pick up right where I left off--without having to download the same e-mail all over again. My USB drive still has enough room for me to bring along a few important files and utilities (like the latest versions of AVG and Ad-Aware for disinfecting the in-laws' PC). Best of all, my stuff is secure: As long as my USB drive is hanging from its lanyard around my neck, bosses and other busybodies can't pilfer my messages, passwords, or browser history. I call it Internet-on-a-Stick.

The Caveats

Naturally, a few cons lurk among the pros. First, for best results you'll need to pick a USB 2.0 Hi-Speed drive and plug it into a USB 2.0 port. In a pinch you can run Haller's portable apps at USB 1.1 speeds, but they'll be noticeably slow.

Second, the latest USB drives are itty-bitty, which makes them easy to leave behind. Choose a device with a key-ring loop; that way, you can attach it to a lanyard, bungee cord, or anything else that will remind you to take the drive with you when you log out. Alternatively, you can leave the drive permanently tethered to your purse, briefcase, or nose ring.

If you do manage to lose the USB drive, the personal data it contains will be more secure if you used its bundled security software to encrypt its sensitive contents. If you can't find any encryption software accompanying your drive, check the manufacturer's site for a free downloadable version, or try one of these two freebies: Cypherix's Cryptainer LE or Dekart's Private Disk Light (see "Portable Internet Tool Kit").

Personally, in most cases I find that decrypting and encrypting files whenever I want to use them is more effort than it's worth. So I leave Portable Firefox and Portable Thunderbird without encryption, but I use each program's own security settings to safeguard the Web site and mail server user names and passwords that I want them to remember for me. To do that in Portable Firefox, choose Tools, Options, select the Privacy icon, expand the Saved Passwords section, and click Set Master Password (see Figure 2

FIGURE 2: Password-protect passwords in Portable Firefox in case you lose your USB drive.
). Enter a password in the next dialog box (you'll have to do it twice) and click OK. To password-protect your e-mail account information in Portable Thunderbird, select Tools, Options, click the Advanced icon, expand the Saved Passwords section, and click Master Password. In the next dialog box, check Use a master password to encrypt stored passwords and then click Change Password. Enter your password in the provided fields and click OK twice.

Haller configured the portable Mozilla apps to minimize the number of times they write to a USB drive. By default Portable Firefox doesn't cache Web pages, and it doesn't track history. If you'd prefer to trade drive life for speed and functionality, you can re-enable both of these by selecting Tools, Options and clicking Privacy. To enable History, expand the History section and in the provided field enter the specific number of days for which you want Portable Firefox to track your browsing history. To enable caching, expand the Cache section and then enter the amount of USB drive space (in kilobytes) that you want to set aside for caching, something like 1000KB. Click OK to save the changes.

Haller made a few changes to Thunderbird's default configuration, too, with an eye toward prolonging your drive's life. He warns against enabling Thunderbird's adaptive spam filter, noting that merely marking a single message as spam can require 1000 to 3000 disk writes. It will also slow performance noticeably. I may regret it when my USB drive conks out before its time, but life without a spam filter simply isn't worth living, so I enabled filtering by clicking Tools, Junk Mail Controls and altering the settings.

In view of the increased risk of losing your e-mail, addresses, bookmarks, and appointments, make sure that you back up your portable applications regularly. For detailed instructions on how to back up, install, launch, and configure the portable Mozilla programs, visit each application's official Mozilla Web site.

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