Windows 8 and Software Distribution Complexities

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Windows 8 creates great opportunities for some but problems for others.


By now, Microsoft's latest version of Windows (Windows 8) is making its way into your organization's infrastructure. Whether you're a software developer working in your company's IT shop, an IT administrator, or a consulting developer who supplies software to your clients, Microsoft's Windows 8 offers you new opportunities…but with complications in distributing your code to your targeted PCs. How you solve those complications may set the path for the future of your work. Let's examine the complications and the implications.


The New UI Landscape

Windows 8 provides two user interfaces: the traditional desktop interface that has evolved over the years, and the new, official "Windows 8" interface that Microsoft previously called the Metro interface.


The traditional desktop UI still permits you to distribute full applications in much the same manner as Windows 7 and previous versions: Applications run through a setup process that drops the application into a folder, adds information into the Windows Registry, creates icons on the desktop and in the taskbar, and makes an uninstall process to the Control Panel.


By comparison, the new Windows 8 "Metro-style" UI environment is an entirely new world. The old Windows Start button is no longer on the Windows display; instead you get a Windows 8 Apps Start Screen. Windows 8 apps run in colorful tiles that populate the opening screen.


Apps are, in concept, not much different from the old Windows 7 and Vista Desktop Gadgets that performed limited, focused tasks. However, unlike the old gadgets, you can only distribute Windows 8 apps through a more complex and secure process.


The hope of Microsoft is that this new UI will encourage developers to create Windows 8 apps and rekindle excitement by Windows users. But the process of getting those apps onto your users' Windows 8 machines may cause you some headaches.


Perplexing Distributions

There are two pathways to get an application or a Windows 8 app onto your users' Windows 8 machine: through the Windows Store, or a process called Sideloading. Choosing the appropriate pathway will depend on how you envision your distribution processes: as a public retailed product or as a privately distributed solution.


Public Apps

The Windows Store (not to be confused with the Microsoft Store) is a digital distribution platform for the Microsoft's Windows 8 and Windows RT operating systems. The platform can be used to provide listings for desktop applications certified to run on Windows 8, but it is also the primary distribution platform for Windows Store apps.


Both free and paid apps and applications can be distributed through the Windows Store, with paid apps ranging in cost from US $1.49 to $999.99.


The Windows Store is a great distribution method if your company is into retailing an application or an app, but your Windows Store retail offering will need to be certified for compatibility and content. Moreover, Microsoft takes a percentage of the price (currently 30 percent; see Microsoft's "Application Developer Agreement" for details.)


However, the Windows Store is probably unsuitable for the myriad custom software code that companies often pay developers to create for their internal users. For these applications, you would use the old standard of Desktop Setup processes orfor appsuse the processes of Sideloading.



Sideloading is a process of provisioning a user's Windows 8 machine for the installation and activation of a Windows 8 app. Windows 8's sideloading capability is very version-sensitive: It's only viable for PCs running Windows 8 Pro and Enterprise editions; it's not available for the Windows RT version nor the vanilla Windows 8 non-Pro version that comes with most consumer machines. Apps for these more limited editions are available only through the Windows Store.


You can put an app's code onto a user's machine simply by copying it to the PC. But before you can run a sideloaded app:

  • You must activate the sideloading product key on the device (running Windows 8 Enterprise or Windows 8 Pro).


  • You must join the device running Windows 8 Enterprise or Windows Server 2012 to an Active Directory domain that has the Allow all trusted applications to install Group Policy setting enabled.


You can enable sideloading on Windows 8 Enterprise or Windows Server 2012 just by joining the device to a domain. Regardless of the choice, you must add and activate the sideloading product key, using Software License Manager (SLMGR) commands: one to add the product key, and one to activate the app.


For instance to add the product key, open a cmd prompt with administrator privileges and type:


slmgr /ipk <sideloading product key>


To activate the key, type this phrase exactly:


slmgr /ato ec67814b-30e6-4a50-bf7b-d55daf729d1e



So what do these complexities mean for your IT shop's software distribution processes?


Distributing full, traditional software programs doesn't change much from Windows 7. This permits continuity in how your organization is probably currently distributing custom line-of-business code to Windows users. Security considerations also remain the same.


On the other hand, if the goal is to write and distribute new Windows 8 apps, the process becomes complexthough very secureand will require you to adequately plan for an extra effort with your users' machines.


Consequently, the easiest way is to place an app on a user's machine is to use the Windows Store for public distributionsfor a price.


For non-public apps, yes, you are provided with a means to sideload apps to specific versions of Windows 8. But it's a complex process, requiring greater planning and more detailed hands-on.


In other words, sideloading non-public apps is not something you can easily turn over to your end users and not something that is a casual decision for software distribution.


Why Is Sideloading So Hard?

Why Microsoft chose to create such a complex sideloading process is a topic of much debate. Why, for instance, if they really want to stress the new Windows 8 Start Screen and all the benefits of the Windows 8 GUI, did they make sideloading such a difficult process? Security is, of course, one thing, but ease of use in sideloading is definitely at odds with the so-called ease of use that Windows 8 promises.


It's hoped that, as the new Windows 8 operating system takes hold in our organizations, Microsoft will spend some extra effort to make sideloading apps a more mainstream process for the benefit of small and medium-sized companies that need to leverage the value of the new Windows 8 user interface. Without that extra effort, the new UI will remain underutilized and will be an obstacle to general acceptance by our organizations. To be successful in a business, apps need to be easy to create, easy to internally distribute, and easy to secure. Without all three elements, apps will be unable to deliver the value that Microsoft promises for the small and medium-sized companies.