Installophobia a Setupanxiety

2007/01/07

I have to admit that I am suffering from severe case of installophobia. Every time I start installation program on Windows, I am very vividly imagining all the terrible things that may happen in next few minutes. Like overwriting some system DLL’s with some old or wrong version which will break half dozen of other programs. Or messing up my registry so badly that I will have have to spend few days of backing up my system data and installing XP from scratch (and inevitably loose something very important in the process). The introduction of the system installer and MSI format few years ago helped a little for a while – up to the point when I wrote my first own installation program and fully understood what exactly can be done with it :-). Then it come back. I guess this may have contributed to two major shifts during last year – moving to Mac platform (which has no registry) and moving on-line (which has no install at all).

Using only Web based tools is an ultimate cure for installophobia and it gives you also ultimate portability. With Web based apps you do not need to carry anything with you – as long as you have internet connectivity, you are OK. As added benefit, all the tools are by definition multi platform and (almost always) OS agnostic. That almost part refers to small percentage of Web site who insist on using a feature available only in Internet Explorer – but their number seems to be decreasing.

If you are somewhere without connectivity you may still get the help against setupanxiety in the form of portable applications. They are just ordinary Windows application, which do not require installation and run from any place you have copied them – for example from USB key. I am wearing 1 GB USB stick on my keys for over a year now. I did not really use it too much – except occasional file transfer here and there, I had never have much use for it. Today I have decided to change it and create USB key toolset from (preferably) free and opensource programs.

Portable applications I have copied on my key so far:

- Package of Portable applications available from here. It contains Firefox (“the” browser), Thunderbird (“the” email client), Sunbird (calendar), GIMP (poor mans’s Photoshop), ClamWin (antivirus), Miranda and Gaim (IM clients), OpenOffice, Abiword and VLC player plus few others. As added value, you will get a start program that that sits in system tray and makes access faster.

I have also added few more apps:

- Opera – alternative browser
- NVU – the HTML editor
- Notepad++ – programmers editor
- Sysinternals tools
- Total Commander – ultimate file manager, see the install hack
- Hex editor – when text is not enough
- KeePass – to keep secrets
- FullSync – to keep things in sync
- WinHTTrack – to download website
- Neomem – a pretty neat notepad
- Putty and WinSCP – no comments needed
- xampp - full Apache webserver with PHP + PEAR, Perl, mod_php, mod_perl, mod_ssl, OpenSSL, phpMyAdmin, Webalizer, Mercury Mail Transport System for Win32 and NetWare Systems v3.32, JpGraph, FileZilla FTP Server, mcrypt, eAccelerator, SQLite, and WEB-DAV + mod_auth_mysql
- TcpTrace, Http Fileserver,

As additional benefit of being careful with installers (on top of prolonging the lifespan of your Windows installation by delaying the registry cancer) you will also get easy cleanup (delete the directory and you are done), easy upgrade (delete old + xcopy new) and ability to carry your data with you (for example the bookmarks from portable Opera).

In fact, I am using the portable versions of the programs even on my desktop systems from the C: drive. This way I am not getting the same data portability as with USB key, true, but this is an excellent way how to run for example multiple versions of Firefox next to each other or use Opera without worrying which document types will the install program try to “steal” away.

What are the drawbacks of portable apps ? Obviously, you will not get as good integration as with installed versions – e.g. with portable OpenOffice, the doubleclick on document will NOT start the text processor or spreadsheet – you have to start the program first and then open the file (or drop file on program window). Running from USB key is usually slower than from disk and key has smaller capacity. And USB key is easy to be lost, misplaced etc – so having a backup copy is always a good idea.

Of course, the portable apps are no Windows specific thing – there are portable apps for OS-X as well. Nevertheless, Windows users will get most benefits of them, thanks to the fragility of the platform. And if you hoped (as I did) that Vista will be a big improvement in that registry nonsense, guess what ? Registry is still out there in Vista :-(. Therefore, guys – get ready to get out some productive mileage from our USB keys … Or consider switching to Mac – no registry and install is drag’n’drop affair done in few seconds. Your choice.

Few more portable apps that I still need to spend some time on:
- portable Bash
- free portable Python with IDE
- fully portable Java (not terribly hard, but if you want to avoid conflicts with ancient versions in Windows directory, you need to change PATH and environment variables)
- portable Eclipse (I know it can be done, just need to it do it properly. As soon as I am back to some Java project).

If you are into portable apps and have some time to kill evaluate software,  this Wikipedia page is also worth looking at is.


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