You can take it with you! Run your favorite open source programs from a USB stick.
If you’re reading this, you most likely already use Linux and open source software. But you’re undoubtedly faced with a common dilemma, one that all Linux users dread: Having to sit down at a computer that’s not running Linux, and is instead running — go ahead and say it… Windows — and actually have to get something done. Maybe it’s a computer at work; maybe it’s a friend’s machine — but in any case, it’s a Windows machine, it’s not yours, and it doesn’t have the software you know and love, like Firefox, Thunderbird, and OpenOffice.org. What are you going to do?
Here’s another common scenario: How do you get your Windows-addled friends to switch to Linux and open source? A very teeny-tiny number may leap at the chance to run Linux. “Wow! ” they’ll eagerly say, “Linux and open source sounds great! Since I’m the adventurous type, let’s go ahead, erase my hard drive, and install Linux and open source! ”
If that actually happens, rush out and buy a lottery ticket, because you’re having a very special day. The vast majority of Windows users will require some convincing before they even think about trying open source. Like people from Missouri, you’re gonna need to show ’em. And on top of that, you’d better not mess up their computers while you’re doing the convincin’, or it’s all over.
Sure, a Live CD like Mepis or K/Ubuntu can do the trick, but that’s too big of a change for most folks. Better to ease them into open source, and when they’re comfortable with all the great open source software out there, bring up actually moving all the way to Linux. Get ’em hooked on Firefox and Thunderbird first, and it’s far more likely that Ubuntu can follow.
Fortunately, there’s a common solution to both situations, one that allows you to run the open source programs you trust when you have to use an operating system that you don’t, and also facilitates the transition the Windows users you know to better, more open options. That solution is PortableApps.
Here’s what you do: buy two 1 GB USB flash drives, one for you and one for someone else. Head over to http://portableapps.com, download and install the PortableApps Suite onto the flash drives, and then give one to Uncle Gussie. Show Uncle Gussie how to run programs off the flash drive. Explain to him that he can take the USB flash drive and plug it into any computer he uses, and he’ll have all his new favorite programs right there. Meanwhile, you keep the other one in your pocket so that you can run the programs you depend upon at a moment’s notice.
Sounds pretty cool, right? So what exactly are PortableApps, and exactly how do they work
John T. Haller created the first PortableApp in 2004 by developing Firefox Portable, a version of Firefox designed to be run from a USB flash drive (or iPod or other portable USB device). Firefox Portable makes several important modifications to the “normal” installation of Firefox. Bookmarks, installed extensions, and passwords are all stored on the flash drive along with the program, for instance. The cache is disabled, as well as browser history and the default browser check, all in an effort to decrease the number of times the computer writes to the flash drive, which increases the life of the USB device. In fact, nothing is left behind on the PC when you unplug the flash drive containing Firefox Portable, giving users a higher degree of privacy than those who use an “installed” Firefox.
Haller quickly went beyond Firefox Portable, eventually placing all of the application under the umbrella of PortableApps. The full list of the current PortableApps is at http://portableapps.com/apps, but it includes Thunderbird, FileZilla, Gaim (now Pidgin), PuTTY, GIMP, Audacity, VLC, OpenOffice.org, 7-Zip, and Kee-Pass Password Safe.
That’s pretty impressive! with PortableApps, you can use the Web, read email, transfer files, chat with friends, ssh into machines, edit images and sounds, watch movies and listen to music, write office documents, zip up the results, and store passwords securely! And remember, there are even more programs on the site, with new ones coming all the time.
If you want to grab the most popular programs at one time, check out the PortableApps Suite, available at http://portableapps.com/suite. Pick either Standard or Lite, depending on the site of your USB device. Included with the Suite is the PortableApps.com Menu, a Start menu-like launcher, and PortableApps.com Backup, a nifty little program (based around 7-Zip) that makes it ridiculously easy to back up all your PortableApps from your flash drive to your hard drive.
John Haller and his team have done yeoman’s work by developing PortableApps. With the prices of USB flash drives quickly approaching “ridiculously low,” there’s no excuse not to try — or hand out — PortableApps out today!
teaches at Washington University in St. Louis, consults for WebSanity, and writes for SecurityFocus and Linux Magazine
. His latest book, Linux Phrasebook
is in stores now. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org