Microsoft preps StartKey: A 'Windows companion' on a USB stick

Microsoft preps StartKey: A 'Windows companion' on a USB stick

Summary: Microsoft has some big plans for the small-sized storage devices. 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.

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Microsoft has some big plans for the small-sized storage devices.

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.

Microsoft's goal is to build an end-to-end StartKey environment -- comprised of everything from system software on the flash devices, a software development kit to enable third-party developers to create products that can leverage StartKey, and accompany Microsoft applications and services, sources said.

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.

StartKey will make these flash devices more Windows-centric. StartKey devices will be customized to plug into Windows machines. They will allow users to bring everything from their desktop wallpaper, to their desktop icons, contact lists and data with them so that they can turn any PC or kiosk into their own, personalized workspaces.

Customers in developing nations are going to be a prime target for Microsoft with StartKey, my sources say. In these markets, StartKey becomes a way for Microsoft to reach billions of users in developing countries who might not have their own Windows PC at home, but who can get access to one at school or can log on via a shared Internet kiosk.

Microsoft has working with the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) team and various PC partners to test if and how Windows XP can run on Linux-based XO laptops. One of the favored solutions is to enable XP and other Microsoft software to run on an SD card that will be inside the XO.

When I asked Microsoft's Unlimited Potential team whether StartKey would be the way Microsoft delivers Windows on XO machines, a company spokesperson said there was "no connection." However, the spokesperson added: "As mentioned previously, Microsoft plans to publish formal design guidelines in the near future to help all flash-based device manufacturers design machines capable of a high-quality Windows experience."

(For those of you who, like me, are still wondering why XO users would want/need both Linux and Windows on these machines, here's the official response from the aforementioned spokeswoman: "Obviously, there would be a variety of reasons for governments and other purchasing bodies to choose XP--strong Windows ecosystem support, increased availability of educational software, and an strong connection to job and economic opportunity, among others.")

But back to StartKey. Microsoft has started talking up its StartKey vision among potential OEM partners. In the developed world, Microsoft is positioning StartKey as being securely and seamlessly integrated with Windows-based PCs and Windows Live services, I hear.

To me, StartKey sounds like an idea that might have gotten its start as part of a Microsoft Research project I heard about a year or so ago, codenamed "KeyChain." Here's Microsoft's description of how KeyChain would work:

"Tomorrow's mobile computing environment might see a proliferation of public-use (kiosk) machines where users can simply and easily call up their desktop environments. This vision offers an alternative to portable computing that doesn't require users to carry bulky, fragile, and theft-prone laptops. We posit that kiosk machines are capable of hosting users' desktops as virtual machines and propose a virtual disk design. The virtual disk design allows for an efficient access to per-user state held 'in the network.' We use flash-based disks to capture virtual machine memory state and to act as a cache for the virtual disk. We also allow static portions of the virtual disk, e.g., binaries for Windows and Office, to be served from the kiosk disk."

How much of Windows itself (if any) will be on the StartKey devices? When will they hit the market and how much will they cost? Will virtualization technology figure into the StartKey equation? I don't know. But I do know StartKey is in full-steam-ahead mode.

Do you think customers here and in emerging markets will bite?

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

About

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).

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97 comments
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  • So it's OS on a stick ...

    How long has this been out in the Linux/BSD world? Two, three years, maybe more? Those who cannot innovate, imitate. ;)
    MisterMiester
    • Its not an OS on a stick...

      Its part of an OS on a stick. They are doing this to help their core business, software. I can't help but admire them. After all, an OS on a stick would not increase thier footprint any more than part of an OS on a stick. Its really quite smart. Any computer people come up against will have Windows on it, and they simply plug it in and use their computers. When they're finished, they unplug and off they go. For an OS on a stick, its basically the same thing but much more expensive to develop.
      And by the way, in software development, nothing in original (well, almost nothing). Have you seen KDE 4.0 (or whatever the newest one is)? I would say its the linux community's attempt to emulate Windows and Macintosh.
      Chustar
      • RE: Its not an OS on a stick......

        So it doesn't have stand alone functionality. It will always depend on finding a computer with Windows. Sounds more like a gimmick than a tool. As for KDE, you do know that KDE is just one of roughly a hundred desktops for Linux, don't you? On software development I agree. All of the heavy lifting was done in the 40's and 50's. Almost everything since has been refinement.
        richdave
        • Yeah, I know

          But honestly, KDE and Gnome are the only ones people really use (I don't even know the names of any other desktops). Besides, they could very likely implement this for other OSes(Apple willing (yeah, right!)) Besides which, where will you find a computer that doesn't have Windows? Even in my school, in the heart of Silicon Valley, not 50 miles (I think) from Apple HQ (I have never been interested in going) all the computers run XP or 2000 (there are some Macs in the graphics department, but who cares about them (apart from Graphics Majors)?
          "Sounds more like a gimmick than a tool" Not really, If I can customize my workspace to be exactly how I like it, and not deal with the IT Admin who has a thing about desktop icons (I can't stand desktop icons) or one who won't let me run Firefox (Most Internet Cafes in Nigeria don't even know what that is).
          Also, I want to apologize for the excessive parenthesis (probably an OCD thing).
          Chustar
          • RE: Yeah, I know...

            KDE and Gnome may be the best known. Doesn't mean they are the most used. Many prefer icewn, xfce, fluxbox, or enlightment, for example. As for the gimmick vs tool, there are several Linux "os on a stick" distros where your entire work, including updated and created saved files are on that stick. In other words, your entire computing experience is on a pen drive or two or three.
            richdave
          • The holy phial

            must be sprinkled with water of purity that only the seven seas can know, for it is said that from the darkness will come evil that will access all of your data.
            catechumen@...
          • Where won't you find Windows?

            My house, the computer science department of my school, the last place I worked, the CS dept of a nearby high school, a lot of my friends' houses (one of whom is the son of a former Microsoft software engineer)...
            macoafi
          • wow

            you and your friends must single handedly account for teh 9% of the world that doesn't run Windows.

            Congrats, you're a real rebel.
            rtk
          • "teh 9% of the world"

            There are many enlightened individuals (such as myself) who run 'non-Windows,' also known as Mac or *nix (though MSFanboys like you might not understand these terms).

            Rebellion is opposition to authority; Microsoft has no 'authority' over the world.

            We're not 'rebels,' we're just not ignorant.
            CassidyJames
          • No, ignorants are a dying breed

            Some people's education extends way beyond entering the correct license key you know.
            fr0thy@...
      • Available right here, right now ...

        Portable apps are already available for personal use:

        http://portableapps.com/apps

        So this is nothing new, plus it's even less desirable then a complete OS on a stick because you need a Windows OS as the host.

        [i] I would say its the linux community's attempt to emulate Windows and Macintosh.[/i]

        Just like OS X Leopard included virtual desktops that have been available to the Linux community since it's inception:

        http://www.fvwm.org/
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FVWM

        Virtual desktops for X Windowing system was available since June, 1 1993. So how long did it take Apple to include this into OSX? ;)
        MisterMiester
        • Truly funny!

          it is truly funny when the Linux crowd claims innovation when their whole OS is nothing more then another version of Unix. Virtualization was available in Unix long before Linux. Keep trying though!
          ShadeTree
          • Trolling, again?

            Don't you have some copies of Vista to sell or something? They dropped the price you know just after those emails about the fiasco with Intel. I bet people are just beating down you doors just to get some of that "WOW". ;)
            MisterMiester
          • Dude, trolling isn't cool...

            You could say photoshop is nothing but advanced paint. But you don't, because even though you can do everything in paint that you can do in photoshop (really easy, just manually edit each individual pixel) it isn't the same.
            Sure Linux started off being a version of unix, but that doesn't mean it isn't innovative. Have you ever used a live CD?
            Chustar
          • Nah!

            ... he doesn't know *jack* about live CD - but he's an expert on *scatched CDs* - it's evident by the way he just keeps skipping over the same tired things over and over again. ;^

            Have to completely agree with your innovation argument though: i've used PCLinuxOS and it performs great - without having to install! And in line with this subject, like DSL, it's another example of the innovation we've come to recognise and expect from the Linux community.

            Regards.
            thx-1138_
      • Linux emulating Windows?

        [B]I would say its the linux community's attempt to emulate Windows and Macintosh.[/B]

        Konqueror, using it since 1999. 9 years ago it was miles ahead of Windows explorer. It is still the best file manager of any OS.

        Virtual desktops, standard, since 1998 (which was my first foray into Linux, using them on Solaris since 1990).

        One central configuration point (KDE control center) as opposed to 1100 gui-->subgui selections.

        Thousands of themes, since forever.

        1000x more customizable than Windows desktop.

        Single click launch. (Why double click?). No Autoraise windows, focus follows mouse, click raise, no click raise. Windows click raise click focus drives me nuts.

        Customize your Start Menu, add anything to right click on the desktop, Karumba...

        One click task bar configuration, top-left-right-bottom, fonts, transparency, more widgets than you can imagine, 50% wide, 80% wide, autohide, transparency elements.

        There is just too much to list. Vista finally looks almost as good as PCLinuxOS.

        Now that KDE is integrating Beryle functionality (which BTW, Beryl does 1000x more than Vista) that existed long before Vista, including stealing superkarumba ideas from Linux, history is being rewritten?

        I can't address OS-X, never owned any Apple computers, however, since it started as a BSD variant, I think it is safe to say that, oh, 3% of the Apple desktop existed and built on Open Source concepts?

        Top it off, no keyboard highlight center mouse click copy/paste forever. Has either of them implemented this yet? Alt-C, CTRL-Y, etc, annoying.

        TripleII
        TripleII-21189418044173169409978279405827
        • OH WOW!

          I remember when I first read a post like yours. It made me run out and install Ubuntu on my computer. Despite the fact that I didn't need it (or want it, I eventually found out) I still did. So...
          [b]Virtual desktops, standard, since 1998 (which was my first foray into Linux, using them on Solaris since 1990).[/b]
          Well, I tried the whole virtual desktop craze on Ubuntu, but didn't really see a need for it. After all, why should I switch from desktop to desktop rather than just minimize?
          [b]One central configuration point (KDE control center) as opposed to 1100 gui-->subgui selections.
          [/b]
          Isn't this similar to control panel?
          [b]Single click launch[/b] You can set Windows to do single click launch, too. I just don't use it becuase single click for me is to select something.
          [b]Vista finally looks almost as good as PCLinuxOS. [/b]
          Huh. I have only used the Gnome version of PCLinuxOS so thanks, I'll have to look into the KDE version.
          [b]Now that KDE is integrating Beryle functionality (which BTW, Beryl does 1000x more than Vista) that existed long before Vista, including stealing superkarumba ideas from Linux, history is being rewritten?[/b]
          Are you saying that high graphics existed long before vista? Isn't beryl a little too garish? What with all the graphical effects on it, its very distracting. But I am NOT extrapolating my POV to anyone else.
          Don't take my posts as some anti-Linux rant. I love Sabayon but really, am I the only one who is noticing that Vista, Leopard and Beryl-Enabled distros are starting to look really similar? Besides, isn't it possible that two people have the same idea without copying each other? (See Newton and Leibniz)

          Yes, I did make my post really long to match yours!
          p.s. What distro do you use?
          Chustar
          • RE: OH WOW!...

            Just my 2 cents worth. Running WinXP Home in Virtualbox in PCLinuxOS2007. Virtualbox is incredibly easy to install and use and Windows works flawlessly. Best of both worlds
            richdave
          • Same here ...

            I have Kubuntu with VM Workstation running XP Pro without any problems, very easy to setup and use. It works great for the occasional file that requires Windows.

            Also with Compiz running and the cube or even the expo plug-in I can switch back and forth between a full screen virtual XP session and KDE with just a flick of the mouse or hot-key.

            Virtual desktops with the expo plug-in is fantastic. Just set any corner as hot-key and bring the mouse to that corner to see all open applications and of the desktops at once.

            I can move between multiple applications much faster then maximizing and minimizing each program. Use the show windows plug-in, set the other corner as hot-key and viola! Pick any application from the number of open application on just one desktop.

            Once you use these little toys it's very hard to go back to a single desktop and try to juggle all of the clutter if you have a lot of applications open.
            MisterMiester
          • Just outlinging how KDE has led, not followed.

            [B]After all, why should I switch from desktop to desktop rather than just minimize?[/B]

            Why minimize. Open them across virtual desktops. 10 apps across 4 virtual desktops vs 10 apps on one desktop, it gets cluttered.

            [B]Isn't this similar to control panel?[/B]
            No, it's not. You launch into what, 40-60 subtasks, whereas KDE control center, all in one frame from that point on. Flip between Looka nd Feel to Mouse Config to Custom Sounds all in a single frame.

            [B]You can set Windows to do single click launch, too. I just don't use it becuase single click for me is to select something.[/B]
            If it is possible, where, I have never seen it (seriously, I would like to know). Can you stop that infernal automatic click raise or focus follows mouse?

            [B]Gnome version of PCLinuxOS[/B]
            http://www.tuxmachines.org/gallery/v/pclos93amm/desktop.jpg.html

            This was the distro I started with. Gotta love synaptic, upgraded to latest version from beta (required manual repository reset). The above is the default desktop.

            [B]Are you saying that high graphics existed long before vista? Isn't beryl a little too garish? [/B]

            No, not at all, powerful graphics (games) is a windows strength. I am just comparing/contrasting Aero vs Beryl. I don't find Beryl garish,
            http://www.tuxmachines.org/gallery/v/pclos2007/

            but sometimes I turn it off. You can customize as much as you want on or off. I love burning window close and spinning desktop though. :D

            Anyway, PCLinuxOS is my distro. Just my opinion, I don't like sudo or Gnome, and Kubuntu is not as polished/integrated as PCLinuxOS.

            TripleII
            TripleII-21189418044173169409978279405827