It’s a question that nags at anyone who has fallen in love with portable apps: why aren’t all applications portable?

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-drive grouping of Q&A web sites.

The Question

SuperUser reader Tom loves the clean organization portable apps provide and wants to know why everything isn’t portable:

I’ve recently been trying to ‘install’ stuff a lot less on my Windows machine (I hate installers – I need to know where programs put stuff…), choosing to use portable or standalone versions of applications instead.

I put them all in a ‘Programs’ dir on a drive separate from my Windows partition, so whenever I reinstall, I have all my applications available with minimal effort and on the plus side, I get a nice clean setup.

Applications like Office and Creative Suite still require me to go through a horribly long installation process where a thousand random libraries and tools are thrown across my system.

Why do Windows apps still need installing? Why can’t we just drag Photoshop to a folder à la OSX and just have it work? Does anyone else focus on portable apps, or am I just being OCD about the whole thing?

We’re certainly fans of portable apps and would also like to get to the bottom of things.

The Answer

SuperUser contributor David Whitney offers some insight into why many apps aren’t portable and how Windows enforces a sort of anti-portability arrangement:

Installers are a result of years of evolution and a little bit of (simplified) history helps understand why they do what they do..

The Windows 3.1 model suggested config.ini style configuration files per application with supporting shared libaries going into system folders to prevent duplication and wasted disk space.

Windows 95 introduced the registry allowing a central store for application configuration replacing many configuration files. More importantly, windows configuration was stored in the same place.

The registry became bloated due to applications not cleaning up after themselves. DLL hell happened as a result of multiple versions of the same shared libraries overwriting each other.

.NET introduced the concept of app.config (almost ini files mark 2, this time with a little more structure saving developers wasting time writing manual parsers). The GAC was introduced to version shared assemblies in an attempt to prevent DLL Hell.

In Windows XP and moreso in Vista, Microsoft attempted to define the userspace as a place to store user data and configuration files in a single standard location to allow for roamning profiles and easy migration (just copy your profile) with the applications installed in Program Files.

So I guess, the reason is that “applications in Windows are designed to live in one place, their shared dependencies in another, and the user specific data in another”, which pretty much works against the concept of xcopying a single location.

.. and that’s before you have to configure user accounts, and setup and ensure security permissions, and download updates, and install windows services…

xcopy is the “simple case” and certainly isn’t a best fit for everything.


Unfortunately for fans of all things portable, many apps–especially large apps like Office–will remain firmly fixed to and distributed across the operating system.

Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.


Profile Photo for Jason Fitzpatrick Jason Fitzpatrick
Jason Fitzpatrick is the Editor in Chief of LifeSavvy, How-To Geek's sister site focused life hacks, tips, and tricks. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at Review Geek, How-To Geek, and Lifehacker. Jason served as Lifehacker's Weekend Editor before he joined How-To Geek.
Read Full Bio »

The above article may contain affiliate links, which help support How-To Geek.