The (shrinking) Evolution of Software Installation Media

So... how did I get here? Well, I guess it was Windows 7 that kicked it all off, really. But we'll get to that in a moment. For now, gather 'round, kids. I'm going to tell you a story about where software used to come from.

You see, back in the late 80's and early 90's, software came on floppy disks (sorry, I didn't have any 5.25"s handy, so we gotta start our history with 3.5" ones). They didn't hold enough to hold the entire software package, so you had a stack of them.... and you hoped none of them went missing or bad.

Then, in the mid 90's, many software packages got so big (and enough PC's had CD-ROM players by that time) that publishers started releasing software on CD. You still couldn't boot from the CD's. If you needed to install an operating system, like Windows 95, for example, you'd have to boot a single floppy which would load the CD-ROM drivers and then install the software using the CD for the bulk of the software source.

Eventually, a standard was arrived at which would let PC's boot directly from CD. However, you couldn't just stick your Windows95 CD into the PC and boot it. The CD, itself, had to be formatted in a special way, and the boot software had to be able to "see" a CD drive. So, we had to wait for the software makers to update their installation software so that it was CD-aware.

What followed were operating systems being distributed solely by a single CD or DVD image. Linux, FreeDOS, WindowsXP, MacOS... you could boot them all right from CD. No more floppies needed at all! So, at this point, computer techs like myself started putting together their universal "rescue" wallet of every CD/DVD we'd ever need. If an employee workstation needed Office re-installed, got that. Need to completely re-install WindowsXP? Got that. Need to boot into a Linux Live-CD (like Ubuntu) to look at a hard disk to figure out why it won't boot? Got that....

It was quite a revelation to not have to pick the floppies that you thought you might need before making a service call. Now, you just grab this big CD/DVD caddy and you had everything you'd need.

So, during the 2000's, after USB became wildly popular, we started seeing PC's which were able to boot from USB storage devices just like they were normal hard drives, to a degree. We were looking at a second revolution like the move from floppies to CD but, this time, from CD's to USB. Of course, just like last time, we had to wait until the software makers now wrote USB-aware installers for their operating systems. The first ones to really be easy to boot from USB were Linux distributions, with some distributions being able to not just install from the USB drive, but they could run entirely from the USB drive, saving user data and everything.

So, at that point, I started keeping a few USB drives with Linux in my CD/DVD caddy. It was just a few at first. But then Windows 7 came out, and it turned out that it's fairly easy to copy the Windows 7 installer to a USB and use that... and it's faster than the DVD. So, faster, smaller, less-likely-to-get-scratched... that's all the incentive I need. So, I added a couple of Windows 7 USB's to the CD caddy.

And then I found out that you can do the same thing with MacOS 10.x. Okay, so, in goes a Snow Leopard USB drive. And then it turns out that there's a way to make a WindowsXP USB installer. Again, way faster than installing from CD. Now, at this point, I had about 6-7 USB drives stuffed in my CD caddy, and they'd sometimes fall out when I'd open the caddy, etc. So, I searched for a solution. Well, it turns out that Case Logic makes 4- and 6-unit USB caddies. So, I got one, and was feeling pretty impressed with myself. I went from carrying something about the size of a brick, to something about the size of a deck of cards.

But then I got thinking... "Maybe I'm aiming a little low". I remembered that PQI makes some pretty tiny USB drives... and PNY is making some small ones, too. They all seem to have little leashes on them so I could, conceivably, put them all on a keychain. So, I did... I put them on a keychain on the zipper of my USB caddy. (And yes, that is the entire Office 2007 install suite on there).

But then I got thinking... "maybe I'm still aiming too low". They do make even smaller memory cards (like xD, miniSD, and even microSD) and they make little adaptors that let you plug them into a USB port. SO there were only three issues to worry about: 1) Will PC's see these card/adaptor combos the same as they would a USB flash drive and be able to boot from them? 2) Are the tiny memory cards a lot more expensive per gigabyte than the flash drives? and 3) Are they much slower than the flash drives?

Well, it turns out that all three answers were in the memory-card's favor. I found that, not only can you boot from these things just like a regular flash drive, but the ones I tested were faster than a regular USB flash drive, and they're even cheaper than the same size USB drive, too.

Okay then, now that I've decided to move all of my install media to little microSD's, I now had a new problem. How do I store these things? I just got done buying my USB flash drive caddy, and now I've got to search for something even more esoteric. Well, it turns out that I found some dude on eBay that makes exactly was I was after. Holds 10 microSD's in the space of a credit-card and it's got a hole to attach a little USB adaptor for them. The cards are held in place snugly, so they won't fall out, but they're not difficult to remove when I want to remove them.

Now the only problem was labeling. Because they're so tiny and they have to slip into these tiny openings in the USB adaptors, you can't really put a label on the microSD's themselves. Fortunately, the slots on the credit-card-sized case are numbered 1-10, and there's space for me to put a big label, so that's what I did.

So, what you're looking at is about 30GB of installation media. I've got two versions of Windows 7, Ubuntu, Windows XP, Snow Leopard, FreeDOS, and Office 2007. All in the size of a credit-card... and all of them (except for the Office card, of course) bootable. In fact, in one of those pictures, you're seeing we all set to install Windows XP, since the 4th card is in the USB adaptor.

So... I gotta wonder at this point... do you think I might still be aiming a little low? :)