Could Windows on a thumb drive = Microsoft StartKey?

Could Windows on a thumb drive = Microsoft StartKey?

Summary: In reading's Ina Fried's blog post about Microsoft mulling the delivery of Windows 7 on a thumb drive, I couldn't help but remember Microsoft's StartKey project. StartKey was a Microsoft project to deliver a "Windows companion" on a stick.I wrote about Microsoft StartKey last year. My sources described it to me, at the time, as a "Windows companion on a stick."


In reading's Ina Fried's blog post about Microsoft mulling the delivery of Windows 7 on a thumb drive, I couldn't help but remember Microsoft's StartKey project.

I wrote about Microsoft StartKey last year. My sources described it to me, at the time, as a "Windows companion on a stick." From my March 2008 post:

"Microsoft is working on turning USB-based flash drives into a 'Windows companion' — a new product known as 'StartKey' — that will allow users to carry their Windows and Windows Live settings with them.

"StartKey isn’t just for USB sticks; it also will work on other flash-storage devices, like SD memory cards. Microsoft is looking to turn these intelligent storage devices portable 'computing companions' for users in both developed and emerging markets, with availability (at least in beta form) likely before the end of this year, according to sources who asked not to be named....

"StartKey has its roots in an agreement Microsoft forged with SanDisk in May 2007. Microsoft announced it would be providing unspecified software to replace the U3 Smart Technology that was included on SanDisk flash devices. U3’s technology enabled users to store files, applications and related settings on their USB sticks."

Microsoft never did launch a beta of StartKey (at least not a public one), to my knowledge. But maybe it is rethinking how/if that technology could be used to distribute Windows 7, especially for netbook low-cost small notebook PC customers.

What's your take? Do you think the Softies are likely to make Windows 7, especially Starter Edition, available on a thumb drive? Or are they more likely to make portable StartKeys some kind of Windows 7 companion devices? Could the two be related somehow?

Topics: Software, Hardware, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Windows


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • About Time

    I've got a bootable Fedora installation on a thumb drive. It works quite well. You can also put the latest Ubuntu Netbook Remix versions on a thumb drive for installation. It'd be nice to see Microsoft catch up to the open-source software world.
    Bruce IV
    • Agree totally

      That was one thing that I loved about Linux
      installations to be honest: you could make a
      bootable disk or even bootable USB drive with them
      easily and not have to keep a slow reading DVD to
      install from, which is the main reason why Windows
      installations take so long: the amount of time it
      takes to read from DVD's.
      • I've installed Win7 > 30 times from USB sticks ...

        ... across 9 (very) different machines with multiple builds.

        Installing form USB shaves a good 10 mins or so from the install process because sucking the install files onto the HDD is MUCH faster than reading off DVD!

        I wouldn't be surprised to see Win8 shipped on a bootable Windows-branded USB sick :)
        • Boot from and and run, not install from...

          This article is talking about having Windows and all your apps *already installed* to the USB stick so you could plug it into a computer, select "boot from USB" and then have your Windows environment up and running.

          The only problem I see with this is the variety of hardware sets that you can find across the world could make the experience less than optimal for many users.
        • 30 times?????? 9 machines?????...........

          er, so you have 9 usb sticks each with a valid installation of Windows on it - or is it 1 usb stick for 9 machines?

          If its 1 usb stick dont that make you a pirate 29 times over? Please explain some more!

          Just thought I'd ask. >:)
  • Bootable Win 7 on a thumb drive would rock

    I like the idea of swapping OS by swapping thumb drives. Most of
    us already carry a thumb drive with our favorite utilities and
    software installed on it. Why not carry our favorite OS too?
    • Me too, but ...

      I'd like to have Winda's on stick too, then I could drop into an i'caf or public library and boot my system without disturbing their setups.

      I suspect that MarkLR's got it right tho, its for DVDless notebooks like my Portege (which I don't always carry).
  • RE: Could Windows on a thumb drive = Microsoft StartKey?

    I think this is simply a replacement for Windows install DVDs for those with netbooks that don't have optical drives. Useful but really not too exciting.
  • It would be nice, but it's probably not going to happen...

    The good old DVD is simply cheaper to mass-produce and it's not very difficult to create a USB thumb drive yourself. (See your favorite search engine.)

    Besides that, Starter Edition is only delivered via OEMs. Most OEMs will create a recovery partition which allows you to reinstall the OS by simply pressing a button during startup. This eliminates the need for any media when installing an OS, so this doesn't make much sense.

    So probably StartKey will be more something like bringing your own data with you (e.g. CardSpace cards, Bitlocker keys, documents, mail, etc) which allows you to easily connect to your favorite service/website/etc using a simple USB drive.

    But everything here is pure speculation, until we get a definite answer from Microsoft :)
    • good point: re starter edition

      Hi. Good point on Starter Edition. I forgot that was OEM-only. So maybe the USB stick distribution -- if it happens -- is part of MS' strategy to try to get netbook users to move up a notch and pay more for Home Premium.... Like you said, we won't really know until Microsoft will comment one way or the other on its Win7 USB plans.... Thanks. MJ
      Mary Jo Foley
      • Why would they?

        "Like you said, we won't really know until Microsoft will comment one
        way or the other on its Win7 USB plans"

        Plans started in 2007, Mary expects beta by end 2008. Middle 2009 and
        nothing but another article. Priceless;-)
        Richard Flude
  • It's good to see thumb drives ...

    ... are going to be allowed back into the Windows ecosystem.

    That would be welcomed.

  • How about a Win7 run live ....

    Yeah, right, oh look, a flying PIG, no, my bad, just a PIG
    Brent R Brian
  • RE: Could Windows on a thumb drive = Microsoft StartKey?

    With the coming of the USB 3.0 spec, I think it would not only be doable, but preferable, if the spec does come out to be what some are claiming; that it could sustain transfer rates faster than a SATA drive, then why wouldn't you put Win7, any edition for that matter, on a flash drive?
    • A few reasons...

      1. a USB 3.0 drive will only have a speed advantage on machines with 3.0 support. It will take some time for USB 3.0 to become commonplace on computers across the pricing gamut rather than premium models (how many computers these days have Blu-Ray?).

      2. Even if the interface supports 3.0 speeds, the read speed of 2.0 can easily become a bottleneck; as it stands right now, most flash drives i've worked with don't fully utilize 2.0 throuput. It will again take some time before flash memory benefits from the 3.0 spec.

      3. Moreso in the case of laptops, 5400RPM drives seem to still be the standard due to their lower OEM cost and better battery performance. Installing off of a USB drive might shave some time off, but not by a sufficiently significant amount to make it worth it to the user. Even so, USB 3.0 transfer with flash fast enough to benefit from it will still be throttled by the write speed of the hard drive, and the processor's speed at decompression.

      4. As was said before, discs are still cheaper to mass produce than USB drives.

      Don't get me wrong, I could definitely see Microsoft eventually going that direction. I just don't see USB 3.0 as the motivation to do it.
  • How many people let other's play with their's

    Personally I do not let people use my computer. I guess the StartKey would be good for a family,
  • Did anyone consider

    That this could be the beginning of an MS "dongle" of some kind, in an attempt to discourage piracy? No thumb drive/dongle = no boot, or "minimalist" boot with no personal settings? Think Windows drives you nuts, sometimes, now? Perhaps "we ain't seen nuthin', yet"...
    • No

      That's not going to happen.
      • Can you be so sure???

        Quote: [i]That's not going to happen. [/i]

        I seem to remember some malware being loaded on my XP machine disguised as a "security update".

        Now, I remember what it was called: [b]WGA[/b]!!

        I would [b]NEVER[/b] put it past [u]monkey boy[/u] and his henchmen in Redmond to do something like that.

        Anyway, my Windoze days are coming to a close. I plan to jump off that platform; before the Windoze 7 train crashes into the station.
  • RE: Could Windows on a thumb drive = Microsoft StartKey?

    Are you refering to a full Windows install? If so, I really doubt MS would do something like that.

    I do have a copy of Windows 2000 on a USB drive that runs from Portable VirtualBox. If I get a call from work and I don't have my laptop, I plug in my drive, start VirtualBox and Win2K and then connect via Cisco VPN. I've used this several times and works very well.