Windows has a few utilities that are universally acknowledged as being useful, easy to work with, and without analog in the world outside Microsoft. For a long time, SteadyState was just that, but then there were companies that developed workalikes, mostly because Microsoft never came out with a 64-bit version.

Now, Microsoft is officially killing SteadyState, though it will be supported for a while longer; there is no word as to whether there might be a successor, but don’t hold your breath.

[InfoWorld]

Windows SteadyState is a handy tool for managing stand-alone PCs in public venues that cater to a motley crew of guest users. In a recent, terse announcement, Microsoft pulled the plug: "SteadyState will be phased out effective December 31, 2010. Microsoft will no longer support Windows SteadyState after June 30, 2011."

Thousands of libraries, small organizations, nonprofits, Internet cafés, schools, and admins who support Windows computers available to the general public are up the ol’ creek without a PC paddle. Even large organizations with pools of publicly available PCs that aren’t connected to the corporate network have come to rely on SteadyState.

I know of several places that will be crying over this, because it is a very easy way to keep things tidy, and counteract the effects of part-time ne’er-do-wells. Administering it is very easy and it effectively makes the machine lose any changes not authorized by the person setting it up.

Microsoft’s free Windows SteadyState lets admins lock down Windows PCs, without the overhead inherent in establishing a domain. Instead, SteadyState runs on an individual PC, not over a network. It includes the ability to wipe changes to a PC’s hard drive clean and start all over with a specific configuration every time Windows reboots.

Thank goodness Windows XP does not need rebooting like older Windows 9.x versions did, it could have been maddening. I have set this up at internet cafes, and the nice thing is that things can be changed (but only temporarily), that way no one gets upset with the “You are not allowed to do that!” messages.

SteadyState caches all of the writes made to the PC’s boot drive. The administrator can have SteadyState clear the cache every time the PC reboots, restoring the PC to its original state. Downloaded Windows updates get special dispensation; they aren’t zapped when the cache refreshes.

The program’s settings allow the administrator to restrict access to many parts of Windows: the Registry Editor, Task Manager, adding or removing printers, burning CDs or DVDs, and much more. Internet Explorer can be blocked or limited to specific sites. Specific programs can also be blocked, either for specific users or for all users. An administrator can even hide entire hard drives, making them inaccessible. Users can be allotted a maximum number of opportunities they’re allowed to access the machine, and an administrator can force a reboot after a specific amount of time. Pretty slick.

Sound too good to be true? Or at least too good to be free? There’s a reason why Microsoft has been giving this one away.

SteadyState grew out of the U.S. Libraries Program from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The U.S. Libraries Program provided more than 60,000 PCs to 11,000 libraries during 2001 to 2003. Those "Gates PCs," as they were known, came with lockdown software called the Public Access Security Tool (PAST). When the Gates Foundation dropped support of PAST in 2004, Microsoft picked up with the Shared Computer Toolkit in 2005, which begat SteadyState in 2007.

SteadyState 2.5, the last version, was released two years ago. Microsoft never added Windows 7 to SteadyState’s repertoire, nor did SteadyState support any 64-bit version of Windows. And now SteadyState is officially an orphan.

If you use SteadyState, it’ll keep working after the end of the year — Microsoft just won’t support you any more. Even the support forum is scheduled to disappear next June.

If you think you might have any need for this, and will be using Windows XP or Vista in the 32-bit flavors, you should pick this up before it disappears. It could come in very handy – I can imagine it being handy with young children on a PC that gets shared.

This utility should be a part of everyone’s tool kit that works on others

If you’re looking for alternatives, I know of two. Faronics Deep Freeze costs $45 per PC for a one-year package. HDGUARD takes a more hard-drive-centric approach to the problem, from $34 per PC.

Unless the Gates Foundation sees this, and picks up the tab, there won’t be any relief, as currently Microsoft doesn’t seem to be on a very charitable path.

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If someone wants a sheep, then that means that he exists.

– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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