SourceForge Interview: Open App Launcher

PortableApps.com

SourceForge’s “Community Choice” project for September is PortableApps.com, an open-source application launcher that users can install via USB or a cloud drive. The software’s creator, John Haller, shared some thoughts with SourceForge’s editors about the project’s past and future.

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Tell me about the PortableApps.com project, please.

PortableApps.com is designed to allow Windows apps to move with the user so people can take their own personal PC wherever they go. The apps as well as the platform to manage them (menu, app store, updater, backup, etc.) install portably, without needing to be ‘installed’ within Windows like standard apps. So, you can have all your own apps with all your own settings, customizations, email, bookmarks, passwords and more on your local machine, in a synced cloud drive, or on a portable device like a flash drive or external hard drive. They continue to work wherever you do on any Windows machine, as well as within Wine on Linux/BSD and Wine derivatives on Mac OS X.

What made you start this?

It started a bit by accident when some users noticed that Firefox had a setting to point it to a specific location for its profile back in 2004. Someone else wondered if that could be used to run it from a flash drive. I packaged it up and made it available on my personal site and ‘Portable Firefox,’ the first modern portable app, was born.

Has the original vision been achieved?

It has and then some. But we’ve been growing the vision along with the project over the years. Today, we’ve grown to include local installs for users who want an easy way to keep their apps and data independent of Windows, as well as cloud drive installs for users moving between machines or wanting to keep everything backed up all the time.

Who can benefit the most from your project?

The apps and management platform can benefit all kinds of users. We’d originally envisioned it helping students as they moved between classes but it quickly grew to include travelers, military personnel, teachers, office workers, and others who wanted a complete PC on a flash drive as a backup.

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What is the need for this particular portable app sharing platform?

PortableApps.com is the world’s largest portable software project, thanks to our developers and users. In addition to assisting the users, we’ve helped expose smaller apps to wider audiences and gotten more folks involved in open source software. We’ve even helped a couple of our developers get into college and land their first jobs. We’re expanding to make it even easier to portablize apps and have publishers get their apps to users, to make it easier for users to share the apps they love.

What’s the best way to get the most out of using PortableApps.com?

The easiest way to get started is to download the PortableApps.com Platform. It lets you setup a portable software environment on a local, cloud, or portable drive with an easy installer. From there, you can automatically download all the apps you need as well as the tools to package your own apps, help test the apps we’re working on, and contribute translations, all within your portable environment. We also keep complete documentation on the tools within our Developer section on the website. And if you need help packaging an app or getting things working, we have nearly 200,000 users in our online forums as well as live chat within your browser or IRC.

What has your project team done to help build and nurture your community?

We’ve found that having transparency and allowing wider participation helps a lot when growing a community. Providing means to keep in touch like mailing lists, wiki pages on the website that all developers can update, and other participation tools. Listening to your users, translators, and contributors is important with any community but it’s even more so within open source projects. We’re expanding to include better source management tools and writing custom conversion tools (all open source, of course) to enable our translators to use online collaboration and translation tools because they’ve told us that that’s what works best for them.

Have you all found that more frequent releases help build up your community of users?

‘Release early, release often’ is a mantra within open source and startup communities for a reason. It helps keep users, testers, developers, and translators engaged. We’ve had some periods of time over the last decade when we’ve held back on releases to make them bigger, with more of a wow factor, to generate more buzz. But it’s often been a mistake because, even if we publish the code and the plans, it disengages users and contributors. So, frequent betas to get new features out, bug fixes in, and new translations reviewed are key. And frequent stable releases, without being often enough to bug a user looking for a nice stable app, pair well with that.

What was the first big thing that happened for your project?

Our first big thing was hitting the front page of Slashdot (a.k.a. getting ‘Slashdotted’). This was back when the apps were hosted on JohnHaller.com and it took my web server out pretty quickly. After that, we got ‘Dugg’ as well (hitting the front page of Digg).

What helped make that happen?

I think creating a tool that helped people both work and play that was useful to them. I hadn’t promoted it at the time other than posting about it back on the mozillazine forums looking for testers.

What was the net result for that event?

The Slashdot and Digg postings helped generate enough interest to build a wider community and it’s been growing ever since.

What is the next big thing for PortableApps.com?

The next big thing is twofold. First is to improve OS integration to the point that PortableApps.com can become the user’s main way to interface with all their apps. The second is adding in another tier of services so that users who like the product can help support the hosting, bandwidth, and development costs on an ongoing basis with a payment or subscription. This will help ensure that PortableApps.com keeps growing for the next 10 years. In the same vein, we’ll be debuting an online app store for commercial software so that users can use their favorite commercial apps alongside their open source and freeware apps. Open source fans can always set it to only show open source apps, of course.

How long do you think that will take?

We’ve already partially completed setting up an infrastructure for a paid bandwidth tier for faster downloads around the world. We’re also exploring making cloud storage and online backup available directly to users from within the platform. We hope to roll out the first test releases for interested users by the end of the year. OS integration is improving with each release as well.

Do you have the resources you need to make that happen?

We have some of them, but adding in the supported services is a way for us to get more resources to make the portable software experience better for everyone.

If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently for PortableApps.com?

There are two things I’d do differently. First, I’d shut up and listen more. Second, I’d start working on a plan for financial self-sufficiency immediately.

Why?

Because working with a community of people from all over the world who speak different languages and who have different technical and cultural experiences amounts to different expectations, which is different than just making an app in your living room. It took me a few years early on to realize how much users, developers, testers, and translators bring to the table by and how difficult it is to make all that expertise, passion, and wants/needs gel into a coherent plan. It was a humbling experience but well worth it.

Also, I’d originally started PortableApps as a hobby, so its growth, along with the need for funds, bandwidth, servers, etc., was always one step ahead of us. Planning for self-sufficiency and future financial needs makes sense for any project that wants to be around even just a few years from when they start.

Any reason you can’t do that now?

We are!

Is there anything else we should know?

We’re very proud of our past accomplishments and optimistic about our future. We’re always looking for more developers, testers, and translators to join our team. And we need users, of course. Some of the best ideas start with someone using one of our tools and thinking “it would be even better if I could…”

I’d also like to express my gratitude to SourceForge for hosting us for all these years. We’re one of the top projects and all that bandwidth and exposure has helped grow the community we have today.

On behalf of everyone at PortableApps.com, we’re honored to be the SourceForge Project of the Month and we’re always happy when our work is appreciated. Thank you!

See past picks for SourceForge Project of The Month here.

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Image: PortableApps.com