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15 May 2007

Portable applications - the experiment

By Andrew Clifford

Portable applications free us from many of the restrictions of the personal computer. But are they practical?

Portable applications run directly from a storage device such as a USB flash drive. I started thinking about them when my laptop broke, and I had to reinstall and reconfigure all my applications on a new one, which included a move to Windows Vista. It made me realise how much we couple our PC's personality (programs, configuration and software) to the hardware. It would have been so much easier to just plug in some sort of device and start where I left off.

Of course there are lots of other solutions to recovering a PC environment, such as disk imaging, virtualization and roaming profiles. But I am interested in portable applications because they are simple, and do not need additional administration and expertise.

Portable applications are not new. I can remember running programs from floppy disks. A lot of software, particularly on the Mac, is packaged to be portable. But for the vast majority of us who use Windows with software installed on the hard disk, there are lots of things we could do more easily with portable applications:

  • Recover from failed hardware.
  • Shuttle work between the office and home.
  • Borrow the PC of a colleague, friend or client.
  • Set up a tailored environment for contractors, without buying them their own PC.
  • Distribute demonstration software that does not need installation.
  • Preserve environments with old versions, for testing.
  • Free yourself from many operating system quirks and incompatibilities, and for example run on Vista as easy as XP.

I am going to try an experiment. I am going to try to recreate my entire PC environment (office applications and a variety of development tools) as portable applications which run under Windows Vista or XP, and validate that it works by routinely switching computers.

I have done some initial setup. I tried some U3 applications, but most of these do not run under Vista. I had much more success with PortableApps.com, which provides portable versions of most of the office applications I use. I have set up the Tomcat Java-based web server, the Cygwin Linux emulator, and the XAMPP package for Apache web server, PHP and MySQL.

But just getting it to work is the easy bit. I have to rethink backups, upgrades and security. I need to understand what has to be copied to the disk to make it run (some web applications run too slowly from a flash drive). I need to recreate file associations and shortcuts. I need to fix clashes between installed and portable versions of the same software. I need to work out what to do with software that really needs Windows features like registry entries. I need to test that the environment is truly portable.

I do not need a perfect solution. I just want to demonstrate that it is practical and safe to set up a portable version of a complicated PC environment, and then explore the advantages of this.

I will let you know how I get on.

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