Ninite automates installation of Windows, Linux apps

Without doubt, there is a core set of applications and tools you need on all PCs, whether it's your own machine or those of users. That set typically includes one or more Web browsers along with messaging, media and imaging utilities, and runtimes for subsystems such as Java, Flash and Air.

I've just been testing a really impressive solution to the problem of installing these tools and keeping them updated. Published by Secure By Design Inc., the tool is called Ninite and it performs installation and updates of a wide range of software for either Windows or Linux in a remarkably painless way.

Ninite was released 18 months ago and, since I first looked at it about a year ago, has matured and has been expanded in terms of the number of software titles it can manage.

I have to mention the product name, "Ninite." I do not like it. The company website contends that it should be pronounced "nin-ite" but, in my humble opinion, that's not actually better and it isn't how most people will pronounce it when they see the name for the first time. Will people remember the name? Probably. Still seems somewhat random.

Anyway, there are two versions of however it is pronounced: a free version and a Pro version with additional features that is also, or so it is claimed, faster due to enhanced caching.

To use Ninite, you navigate your Web browser to the service's home page for Windows or Linux and select which applications and tools you want to install and/or update. When you've finished making your selections an installer is downloaded that is named for some, but not all, of the packages you choose; for example, although my application selection list was much longer, my download was named "Ninite AdAware Air Audacity Auslogics AVG CCleaner Installer.exe."

This naming scheme seems rather odd ... why not just call it "Ninite" or allow the user to name it before downloading? Or how about naming the installer something like "Ninite-ACGHD" where the latter part of the name encodes the applications selected? With that method running the installer with a command line switch could then identify the applications selected. Alas, the company didn't ask my opinion.

With the Pro version you also get Ninite One, a client-side application that provides the same application selection options and builds the installer without having to launch a Web browser.

Running the downloaded installer produces a progress display which you can optionally expand to show the details as the various packages are installed or updated. If for some reason you need to, you can force reinstallation using the /repair command line switch.

The Pro version also lets you build off-line installers, a process the company calls "freezing," which creates an installer that bundles all of the applications to be installed and or updated into one executable.

Installers are designed to be "silent" (that is, no user interaction required for the free version and, optionally, completely invisible operation with the Pro version) so the company set up the software using default options which, as of this writing, you can't change -- you'll have to make specific application customizations an extra task using scripting and other management tools.

An important aspect of how Ninite works is that it "tries to behave exactly like a technical friend you've asked to install a few apps for you. This means that Ninite installers, regardless of when or where they were created: Say 'No' to toolbars or other junk / Always install the latest version of an app / Install the right 32-bit or 64-bit version for a PC / Install apps in the PC's language / Skip apps that are already up-to-date / Upgrade an app if it's out of date." In other words, this is a smart, optimized installation.

I tried Ninite in a Windows XP VM under VMware Fusion on OS X and it worked great. Under Windows Vista Ultimate, I ran into a problem: The installer produced the disappointingly geeky message "An error occurred. [0x80072f19]; Certificate error; 215." Really? I need a hex code? No, what I need is an explanation and a useful solution.

Alas, that's not what I got: The explanation for this error was totally useless and, while I know I appear to have something wrong with my Internet Explorer installation, I'm disappointed when anything is dependent on IE subsystem in any way, let alone an application installer that doesn't install IE!

OK, I know I'm being harsh but until that problem I was so impressed with Ninite. That said, I still am pretty impressed; there's nothing quite like Ninite in its simplicity and elegance. Moreover, Ninite's pricing is extremely reasonable, starting at $20 per month for 100 machines and $185 per month for up to 1,000 machines (beyond that, custom, i.e. arm-wrestling, pricing is available).

I really like Ninite. It has its limitations where customization is concerned, but as a basic workhorse system building tool, it is terrific! Ninite, its name not withstanding, gets a rating of 4.5 out of 5.

Gibbs is installed in Ventura, Calif. Customize your thoughts to gearhead@gibbs.com.

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Mark Gibbs

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