Friday, July 17, 2009

Portable Applications, and Right & Wrong

A few months ago, I wrote about this great new technology in PC computing called "portable applications" by which applications were not installed (to Windows and its Registry), as usual, but rather installed (to a flash drive, usually, and set up for portability) and then could be used on any computer. Normally, when you install a program, the old way, it is tied to that Windows installation. You can't move the program's folder to a flash drive and run it on another computer, because it hasn't got those roots. Likewise, you can't reinstall Windows and expect the program to still work, for the same reason. And why should it be this way? Why should a program which has nothing to do with Windows be tied to Windows? The most practical reason is file associations. Generally, you want your media player to open your music and video files when you double-click on them. Nevermind the fact that, if you're not careful, a Windows Media Player upgrade will steal those associations away. Also never mind the fact that virtually every media player has a means to open media files themselves. Most also let you "drop" media files on them to play them. The double-click method is the most convenient, sure, but you can set this up without having to tie a program to the system. Internet Explorer wasn't even part of Windows initially, but since the third edition of Windows 95 (colloquially referred to as "Windows 97" but more lengthly titled "Microsoft Windows 95 Microsoft Internet Explorer" on the loading screen) it has been. Before that, it was its own program and Windows Explorer, the file manager in Windows, was completely different. Does anybody remember Windows Explorer before it was married to IE?

All in all, portable applications are great. You can take your favorite programs and their settings you've fine-tuned over the years from computer to computer. And all portable applications are free and open-source, right? Well, that's what their chief proponent,, might have you believe. Well, another advantage to a complex installation is that if your program is commercial, it can also be tied to one user and steps can be taken to ensure it isn't being shared by all your friends. Of course, software piracy is even older than music and movie piracy; it's been going on for years. Software that's controlled by alphanumeric codes (like Windows) is shared with a code that works. Software that's controlled by online activation (like Windows XP and newer) is shared with altered files which have been tricked into believing they've been activated. But not everybody can follow often simple instructions to get a downloaded version of a commercial program (such as Adobe Photoshop, one of the biggest targets of software piracy) to work. Portability to the rescue. Once an application is thusly cracked, it can be made portable, and then the process is automated for everybody. Make no mistake, this is illegal as hell, but it's done every day and fewer than a thousandth of a percent of software pirates are ever convicted of a crime or sued. If that.

But while most people honestly know that pirating paid applications like Windows and Photoshop are illegal, did you know that it is also a violation of many free programs' end-user license agreement (EULA) to redistribute them without permission? Technically, while you can download and use programs like Winamp (a media player) and CCleaner (a computer maintenance program) free of charge, you can't burn them on a CD and pass them off to your friends. You can tell them where to get the programs, or email them the links to the official webpage, but you can't just redistribute them. But wait, you say, what about sites like, Softpedia, and FileHippo? These sites get permission, and that's OK. If you, a nobody on the Internet, email AOL (they publish Winamp) or Piriform (they make CCleaner) and ask for permission to share their programs with your friends, your emails will probably go unanswered, or you'll get a nice form letter thanking you for your interest and directing your questions to the program's homepage. On the other hand, if you pass off the programs, nobody will care, most likely. But what about Firefox and VLC Media Player (formerly known as VideoLAN)? These programs are open source, which is supposed to be the big savior of software. While open source is freer than freeware, there are still some caveats. For open source, you have to share the source as well. Firefox, despite popular belief, is not 100% open source. The logo and name are trademarks of Mozilla. You can redistribute Firefox the program, but you cannot call it Firefox, or use the logo. People do do this, of course - Iceweasel is one, and Blackbird is another. Both are basically Firefox, but they have a new logo and name. I don't recall what the story is with Iceweasel, but Blackbird has a black theme and is set up with bookmarks and extensions which, as a complete package, are supposed to make it the ideal web browser for African-Americans, whatever that means. Sounds separatist to me. As a "white boy", I'm highly tempted to use it, just for laughs. "Hey, I'm rockin' BLACKBIRD..." Heh...

So anyway, they tell me over at that it is in fact illegal to redistribute closed-source free programs like CCleaner and Winamp (CCleaner is the more usual target of these discussions, Winamp is just my example) and that it is illegal to redistribute open source software without the source code. And they get pretty serious about these things, too! While I admire their dedication to righting wrongs, I find hypocrisy in the fact that they publish portable versions of emulators, programs used to play old console games. Specifically, they carry programs which emulate NES, Super NES, and Game Boy Advance games. Now, personally, I have no problems with emulators or people who use them. I really don't. I've in fact used two of the three programs they offer - the NES emulator I used was another one. Not too sure about the one they have, but it must be good if they chose it. And here's the thing I've tried to explain to them: Nintendo has never authorized the use of those games on personal computers, and in fact they speak out against it at great length. Some console games were available on other systems, including PCs (MS-DOS, usually). Some were ported to newer consoles (the Game Boy Advance has a "NES Classics" series, for example; also the Nintendo DS features a Nintendo 64 game). Konami even released both Contra and all three Castlevania games for the NES on the PC, using what amounted to an emulator. That's all fine and that's all legal, but at the end of the day, Nintendo has license agreements in every game manual saying the game is only licensed for use on the console it was designed for.

In their defense, members of the forum have offered a couple defenses. First, they argue that emulators don't violate any licenses, it's the ROMs (the game files) that do, and they don't offer them. True, but the emulator is good for nothing other than running these ROMs. They argue that programs like VLC can be used to play pirated music and video files. This is also true, but they have many legal uses as well. There are no legal uses of emulators. Second, they've argued that they use emulators for "homebrew", software written by others to run on consoles. That's cute on the console, but running console homebrew on a console emulator is pointless. The point of homebrew is to extend the features of the console. There's no console homebrew which beats the equivalent software on a PC. Furthermore, they failed to name any of any merit. They've also argued that they play games they still own, but the consoles have fallen into disrepair and have been given or thrown away. When I asked if they actually kept all those games in a drawer, that question went unanswered as well. Essentially, they were blowing smoke, covering up the fact that they have no respect for Nintendo's licenses of paid software (games). Also, most of these defenses are answered by Nintendo's legal FAQ. Yet they will go to war over freeware, and open source, particularly Firefox.

Now, I know I sound like a real bastard saying all this. The truth of the matter, actually, is that I really don't care if people use emulators. I've used them. They just don't make games like they used to. Games used to be fun, so fun we didn't care how bad they looked. They looked good to us not because they did, but because they were fun and we genuinely loved playing them. Now it's all about polygon counts and frame rates. Games push people to buy a new computer every year just to keep up, but are the games actually getting better? Quite the opposite, in fact. There are some great games out there, but they're so few and far between. Deus Ex (2000). Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004). The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006). Rock Band 2 (2008). Deus Ex: The Nameless Mod (2009, independently produced!). There are more, I know I'm forgetting a few, but this decade, compared with the last, is quite shameful for gaming. Those are some of the shining stars, though. So yeah, emulation is fine by me. But so are sites that redistribute Firefox and other free programs. They're fine by me. I do not see the problem. I do not see the problem with people downloading old console games they have no legal business playing on their PC, for a good many reasons, so who bloody cares if somebody passes along free software to a friend? Not I, that's for sure.

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