By Jules Szemere

FirefoxPortable – Your Mobile Office Without a Laptop

By Jules Szemere

SitePoint plays host to a growing number of people who operate small internet-based businesses, often single-person operations. Sole-proprietors have always found it tricky to find time for vacations given the constant demands of business.

The always-on nature of internet business only exacerbates this – your users operate on numerous different timezones, and customer support expectations are high when competition is fierce.

Luckily, the flip-side is that your internet business can, by and large, be operated from anywhere. This gives you freedom to travel when and where you please – so long as you can take care of day-to-day operational issues in a timely fashion.

At first thought, this would imply taking the laptop with you. I gave this careful consideration prior to making the trip to Thailand, from where I’m writing this post. But the idea of lugging a laptop + accessories to a hot, humid location where it’s liable to get damaged / sandy / lost really didn’t appeal.

As this is a short trip, I examined what the necessities were in terms of things I might need to do while away. I certainly planned not to undertake any development work, instead taking care of customer support, sales and any urgent technical problems that hopefully wouldn’t arise.

These functions can be boiled down to web browsing, email, and SSH access. All of which can be readily performed in an internet cafe, pretty much anywhere.

Being paranoid about many things – security one of them – I have long been loathe to type important passwords into public computers which could be infested with any number of viruses and other malware.

Additionally, one’s productivity is drastically lower on a public PC, because you lack access to stored passwords, form & search history, and most likely your non-public bookmarks. Plus you rarely find a browser on offer that is customized to your über-productive taste.

The solution is beautifully simple: A USB thumb drive and a copy of FirefoxPortable. My installation consumes just 30MB, and contains all my stored passwords, bookmarks, toolbar settings – everything exactly as it is in my regular desktop environment. And porting those settings to the portable installation was as simple as copying the contents of Firefox’s profile folder.

The stored passwords are protected by Mozilla’s master password device which, while it does need to be entered when you start your session, is of little value to any nefarious key-loggers who might have been using the PC before you.

But it’s the productivity gains made by having access to your browser that has real value – get some work done and get back to the beach as quickly as possible.

The PortableApps site offers a whole stack of open-source apps ready for portable installation. Conceivably I could setup my entire LAMP development stack in around 90MB with their help, and spin PHP code overlooking the banks of the Yangtze. But I’m on holiday here, after all!

Those without a reliable web-based email interface would be keen on their Portable Thunderbird package.

Finally, for SSH access, PuTTY has always been a portable solution, comprising just one .exe file. Bring along your private key so you can avoid typing any passwords should you need to perform urgent sysadmin surgery. But be warned that latency can be a pain in many internet cafes around the world.

In summary, if you’re traveling places where you don’t want to take the laptop (and who really wants to carry one anywhere?), get yourself a thumb drive and make yourself at home on it.

  • Tyssen

    I did a similar thing last time I was on holiday except that I use portable Opera as my mail client instead.

  • Yeah, I did not see Opera listed on that website, although it is very easy to install portably. Then you only need one application to read your email too.

  • Jozian (Jeff Jockisch)

    Sounds pretty nice, if you just can’t function without your own web browser.

    But for me? I’ll stick with RoboForm2Go on a USB. For all my links, usernames, and passwords. I havent lugged a laptop since I bought it about a year ago.

    Add remote and shared apps like Google Notebook, Google Docs, Google Calendar, iGoogle (for rss feeds) and Mail through Yahoo, Goggle or my SideKick, I’m hardware independent.

  • I actually use it on a shared home computer. Means I can browse with own bookmarks, extensions, bookmarklets and cache immediately without needing to logout and back in from the default user account.

    The only issue is it isn’t upgraded inline with the main Firefox branch, but it still reports back to Mozilla that it’s older — consequently Mozilla keeps advising you to upgrade — even though the installed version may well be the latest release.

  • I thought that most internet cafes had their machines pretty tightly locked down and I’m surprised that you can run this kind of thing, have any of you had problems with this?

    Another problem I had recently in a cyber cafe was a French keyboard which switched character sets depending on the web page you were looking at, swapping around Qs and Ms, which made typing passwords quite tricky!

  • PlayStone

    Has anyone been able to run Skype on a portable environment?

  • Aedus

    The same PortableApps site referenced above has MirandaPortable, which has a Skype plugin that can give you a better portable experience then trying to run Skype on a USB.

  • I use PortableApps sometimes if I can’t be bothered to take one of my laptops with me. Gives me a known clean app to use on a “foreign” PC. Keep meaning to get around to a full OS install on USB key so that I know I’ve got a clean secure environment to work from.

Get the latest in Entrepreneur, once a week, for free.