Could Microsoft’s new MSIX packaging format be the long-sought key to managing Win32 apps with MDM?

MSIX aims to finally wrangle Win32 apps into submission, potentially making emerging technologies like co-management redundant.

For several years now, we’ve been looking at different ways to solve a fundamental dichotomy: MDM is the appropriate management concept for modern devices and is thus attractive for Windows 10, but it just doesn’t work well with legacy Windows apps.

Aside from remoting Windows apps, relying on Web apps, or using .appx/UWP/Store apps, ever since the Windows 8.1 days we’ve looked at various client-based app management technologies and wondered, “Could this be the silver bullet for making our Win32 app issues go away and enabling MDM for Windows?”

The ideal product is something that can easily package up any Win32 app and allow it to be installed, run conflict-free, and be removed, all while keeping the OS pristine, just like with UWP, iOS, and Android apps.

Over the years, we contemplated App-V itself, VMware Project A^2, client Hyper-V, third-party type-2 hypervisors, different forms of containers, Project Centennial, and plenty of other app management products.

So far this hasn’t been achieved. We are talking about Windows apps, so it’s a pretty lofty goal, plus it’s still early days for Windows 10 MDM.

Instead, today the state of the art involves various ways of keeping the best aspects of MDM while still catering to the difficult apps:

  • Windows 10 MDM has been getting more Win32 app-oriented APIs. (MDM has had the ability to deploy simpler .MSIs for a while.)
  • Some Windows 10 MDM products include an agent that can do Win32 app management tasks.
  • Or, using co-management, a device is simply managed by both a traditional platform and MDM together at the same time.

I should note that I’m portraying this all from the MDM perspective because I’m a mobile person. Windows folks like Kevin Kaminski will tell the story differently (and he told it really well—go read his post), but in the end, we all have the same goal. Also, while I’m using the term mobile device management here, it could just as easily be replaced with the terms modern management or unified endpoint management (UEM).

Anyway, it is in this context that Microsoft is introducing the MSIX app packaging format. MSIX was announced at a Microsoft Developer Day keynote and blogpost in early March; I learned about it from Tim Mangan’s retweet and comment on Kevin Kaminski’s excellent overview article.

Here’s what we know about MSIX:

  • It’s a new type of container for client workloads, and it applies to “all” Win32, WPF, Windows Forms, and UWP applications. It brings together the Desktop Bridge, .appx, App-V, and MSI and provides a superset of their functionality.
  • It inherits UWP features, like easy management and access to modern platform features such as Live Tiles, notifications, etc.
  • You can still distribute apps however you want. (Of course apps that go into the store will have to respect policies, so there are some constraints, like apps aren’t allowed to install drivers.)
  • Unlike with Project Centennial, you don’t need to have access to the source code.
  • It’s open source, and an SDK is available on Github. The package format can apply to other operating systems, too.
  • Advanced Installer and Cloudhouse have announced support.

So, by the sound of it, MSIX could be that long-sought solution to wrangling Win32 apps and making them work with MDM. That’s a tall order!

As Tim tweeted: “How much of ‘Win32’ fits into MSIX containers will be the key. I have doubts...” And Kevin wrote: “I expect there will be compromises to make traditional Windows application formats work with MSIX.”

Certainly there are experts combing through this as we speak, and over the coming months as MSIX is developed and explored by the industry, we’ll find out what it can actually do.

If it does hold up to its promise, then many of today’s state of the art techniques could become redundant. Instead of adding traditional agents to MDM or using co-management, Windows 10 devices could potentially make the leap straight to pure MDM. If MSIX is only a partial success, well, maybe it could still at least have a proportional effect on Windows 10 management use cases.

This is all just in theory at this point, and like I said, it’s also still early days for Windows 10 MDM in general. But it sounds like MSIX has the potential to have a huge effect on Windows 10 management, so I’m excited to learn more and see what happens.

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