Anyone who has been working with a Windows PC has been through the grind of installing new software. Applications like Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop and the Firefox browser usually require administrative rights to install and make a host of changes to your hard disk and system Registry. The problem is, all these opaque changes are tough to track, and if your PC crashes, you may have to reinstall dozens of applications. What's more, those installed apps can't go with you if you are using a second computer.
So-called portable apps solve many of those hassles. Designed to run from a removable USB thumb drive or other media (including the main hard drive on a PC), portable apps don't need to be installed. Instead, all the information for them to run is housed neatly in a folder with the application itself. If my system hard drive melts, I don't have to dig up old installation disks and key codes to reinstall the software--I just download the file, unzip it to the desired location, and run the .EXE file.
More to the point, portable apps can run nearly anywhere. If I copy all my portable apps and their settings onto a USB thumb drive, I can plug that drive into almost any Windows PC and instantly have access to all those applications. I've used the portable editions of Google Chrome and Thunderbird email client to access the Web and my email when working from some else's computer. And don't get me started on the value of the outstanding KeePass Portable password manager, which I can securely launch on any PC to access my stash of passwords and account data.
A Portable One-Stop Shop
PortableApps.com is something of a one-stop shop for no-setup-required software. Launched by John T. Haller in 2006, the site provides a host of applications and utilities, ranging from full-feature Office productivity suites and photo editing software, to useful system utilities and games.
You won’t find portable versions of Microsoft Office or Adobe DreamWeaver or Intuit Quicken -- all commercial applications. Most portable software is available at no-cost, and many of these applications are open source. As John T. Haller told me in an interview several years ago, open source licenses make it possible for developers to legally modify and repackage the software.
Case in point is Firefox Portable, which was the first portable app Haller created. The rendering engine and support for things like extensions is the same as the native version. It's just that the portable version of Firefox can be plunked onto a thumb drive and run from nearly any computer.
Perhaps most compelling, the PortableApps versions of these applications are packaged in an "installer" file that streamlines the task of unzipping and placing the application folder on a hard drive, thumb drive or other storage device. PortableApps.com even offers a suite of tools, packaged with a Windows Start menu launch applet, to make applications from the site easier to use.
PortableApps.com is just one -- albeit dedicated -- source of portable applications. Non-open source software like the freely-available Irfanview image viewer and editor, or the free Foobar 2000 music library and player, can be downloaded either as part of a traditional Windows installer package, or as a zipped set of files that can be run from any storage medium.