6 December , 2007 Leave a comment
What is “portable”?
In recent years, the term “portable” has quickly come to be associated with apps that you run off a USB memory stick. However, to me, “portable” has always meant that I could easily move apps from one machine to another without too much incovenience. In fact, in the earlier days, I had my portable apps in a separate partition on the harddisk so that when I reinstall or upgrade Windows, I didn’t have to reinstall/reconfigure my favorite apps. So in my mind at that time, portablity didn’t involve a removable storage device at all.
Portable apps are nice because I can easily pass them to a colleague or friend (“Hey, try out this latest version of Firefox with my favorite addons!”), or help out friends when they run into problems with their PCs (eg. file recovery, network diagnosis). I can upgrade to a newer machine and have my favorite apps up and running in no time, instead of having to spend the entire day swapping CDs and reinstalling/reconfiguring apps that I need. This really made my computing life better.
Since then, I have learnt that some people actually live a nomadic computing life; that they may hop from PC to PC with only their USB memory stick; that they may be using an old machine with some incredibly old version of Windows that has never been updated; that they may only have guest access to the host machine; that they may not want to leave any trace on the host machine after they unplug their USB memory stick.
To summarize, I have learnt that the ideal definition of “portable” means:
- It must run without installation.
- It must run on older versions of Windows which might not have been updated.
- It must not have any coupling with Internet Explorer, audio/video codecs, DirectX etc.
- It must not write settings to the registry or local filesystem.
- It must not leave any trace on the host machine at all, even when the app crashes (hereby referred to as “stealth”).
- It must run with guest access rights.
- It must be able to compensate for USB memory stick drive letter changes.
I say this is an ideal definition because very few programs meet all the above requirements. If I were to stick to all these rules, the database probably won’t be very useful, at least to me. And not everybody agrees that all these requirements are equally important or necessary. So I have decided that quite simply, the apps in the database are what I, Andrew Lee, consider to be portable. I will write up as much as I can about each app (dependencies, settings location, access rights, stealth etc.), and you decide for yourself whether it is portable.
As a general rule, I will consider application portability on two levels: EXE portability, and settings portability. For some apps (eg. diagnostic apps, hardware-specific apps etc.), EXE portability is sufficient. For others (eg. text editors, media players), settings portability is required.
For EXE portability, my preference is not to list any Java or .NET app. Dependencies on IE, codecs or DirectX are OK, as long as they are related to application functionality. For example, an IE-based browser or newsreader is OK, but a checksum generator with IE dependency is not. Same with access rights or path portability; it depends on the nature of the app in question. Stealth is not a factor, unless it is part of application functionality.
If you wish to discuss the definition of “portable”, please do so at the Portable Freeware Discussion forum. There are a couple of sticky threads (1, 2, 3) that you can participate in, or you can start your own topic if necessary.
What is “freeware”
Defining what is freeware is equally tricky:
- When does nagware cease to be freeware?
- What if it doesn’t really nag that often?
- What if the license says it is “donationware”, but doesn’t require you to donate?
- When does an app become adware?
Again, the purist will say, when in doubt, just don’t add them to the database. But I don’t like such a black-and-white view of the world. I will continue to add apps to the database that I consider to be “freeware enough”, and you decide for yourself (by reading the app synopsis) whether it is freeware.
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