Monday, 24 March 2008

Praise the Mobile Portability

Where in the technologies world the ability to store data and applications meets the possibility to use them just anywhere? The mobile disk devices of course. And when it comes to have one on an affordable price the first thing one can think of is the USB memory device.
They are produced in many shapes from many vendors and fast become bigger and bigger in storage space.
What's more important and interesting than what USB disks are is how can they be used.
Well just take a look at some sites: Pegtop, PortablePython or PortableApps.
Especially the last one!
It is a big one - an enormous impact on the world of mobile applications and the idea of carrying your digital personality with you everywhere. Even right now I'm writing this post using the portable version of Firefox (provided by PortableApps) while browsing the net. It is not just a set of solutions, it is a Platform.

The Applications Set
So if you decide to try it don't hesitate but download one of the three versions of the PortableApps suite. The menu is wonderful. It looks a bit familiar, because resembles the Windows' start menu (only placed on the right side of the screen). It also minimizes to the system tray where from it is accessible with a single click. One of the most useful features is its monitor of the free space available on the portable drive.
The applications available on the site are divided into categories and range from games and accessibility aids to "on the fly" development tools.

Mentioning the latter group, the PHP web developers are given access to the robust solution XAMPP, which incorporates a database server (MySQL made portable - nice!), the programming language PHP (there is also an option to code in Perl) and the most popular free web server - Apache.
I'll leave the interesting tale of how to make some other development tools portable for another post, but I can not miss to mention the fine PortablePython platform, which includes the quite serious django web framework.
It is also possible for you to manage your projects if you are a C/C++|Java|Ruby developer - the powerful IDEs like NetBeans and eclipse are very easily made portable, and even accessible from the PA menu.

Extending beyond the PortableApps
Not only additional development tools can be added to the PA Suite, but any EXEcutable can be ported to the PA menu. You'll just have to place it properly on the USB drive - in the 'PortableApps' directory make another one for the application you will be accessing from the PA menu. Place your executable (and its supporting files - configurations, libraries, etc.) into that folder and you're almost done. Open the menu from the tray. From options choose 'Refresh App Icons' and an icon of your application should appear in the list on the left.
There are some drawbacks:
  • the *.exe file should be placed exactly into the newly created directory and nowhere else (shortcuts won't work);
  • and what's worse if there are other executables in the folder that you don't want to use (like uninstall.exe) they will show up in the menu. It looks ugly. So if you don't want them, you'll have to move them in a subfolder.
In my opinion such flaws are not so relevant. After all the PortableApps Suite is pretty self standardized and full of tools (just take a look at the bunch of apps available on their site - few things are missing and in time the list grows bigger). That's why it is so easy to make a regular (and not strictly tied to Windows internal libraries) application a portable one, available in the menu. It is enough to mimic the directory structure of the other portables. And if you're eager to investigate and experiment, you may also try some additional configurations (anything beyond that makes you a Developer, right?).
In the near past I collected these little apps that work anywhere you place them and rarely are more than just an executable. These were small (mostly less than a MegaByte) and useful and sometimes very easy to lose them in the file system. Now finally they all found a home. And that home is everywhere where Windows lives.

Some portability beyond Windows
Well all this beauty cannot be accessed in Linux. Right?
Think again! I've used the PA Menu in Ubuntu Linux (with WINE installed of course). It is not as pretty as in the original case but it is useful after all. I haven't tried all the applications but at least the OpenOffice works :D Using the OpenOffice application from the PortableApps in Ubuntu or other Linux (if the distro comes with it) is generally stupid idea when you can use it natively - at least the performance will be better. But as long as portability is concerned, this is pretty much an achievement.
That's one of the aspects - even on Linux with WINE most of your portable Windows executables are useful.
The other aspect - did we all forget about JAVA? Yes, the predecessor of all this hype. The binaries that were expected to run even on toasters.
The thing is that the JAVA applications can not be ported in the PA Menu (at least not when there is no executable responsible for starting the JAR files). So what? They can be used after all. All the requirement is to have an appropriate JAVA Runtime Environment (or JRE) somewhere on the system. But wait! Although JAVA is very wide spread these days that doesn't make it omnipresent. And even if you find it on every system you poke your drive, how can you be sure that the version available will suffice? The answer to these questions is very simple - make your JAVA portable ;) Actually I made my USB drive a development environment for JAVA - I can execute, but also I can develop JAVA programs directly from the drive. That is very easy and is explained in some more details here.
And when we talk about JAVA the word everywhere is closest to the truth. On Linux and Windows I've used my "jarred" tools the same manner and they behave the same way.

So in this world of flexibility and unlimited possibilities for using applications and data all I can say is: Praise the portability and observe the horizon for the next generation.