Windows 8's new Windows Store is courting more than a little controversy, with gaming-industry figures from Minecraft's Notch to Valve's Gabe Newell expressing distrust and disquiet about Microsoft's move to add a new software distribution channel to its latest OS.
Listening to them, it sounds as though Microsoft is turning the PC into another iPad or Xbox, with a closed software distribution model that puts an end to the PC as a general-purpose computing device.
It's certainly a scary idea for any of us who've grown up with machines we've been able to program and customise. Are those PCs suddenly going to turn into appliances, where the software you use is dumbed down and curated by a malevolent entity set on extracting the last pennies from our pockets? Or has the rumour mill gone into overdrive again?
Let's take a look at how software gets run, and gets installed on Windows 8.
First we have the traditional desktop. Most applications that run on Windows 7 or earlier will run here. That means you'll install them in the same ways you always have, by downloading, by buying CDs and DVDs, by using flash drives. Windows applications are still Windows applications, and nothing has changed for them.
So if you've installed Java, you'll be able to download and play Minecraft, or install the Steam client and download any game you've bought there. There's no intervention from Microsoft, no oversight, no curation. It's the Windows world as you know and love — and hate — it.
That was the old Windows world, and it's not going away. Windows 8, however, adds the Windows Store and Windows Store Applications — what Visual Studio calls what used to be Metro applications — which have a whole new way of installation. And that's where the confusion comes in, because the Windows Store adds new certification processes, adding strictness to what has been ad hoc and unmanaged software distribution.
Store-only distribution model
There are two routes to the Windows Store. First, there's the Store-only distribution model for Windows Store applications. That's not the only way they can be installed on PCs and tablets, but we'll leave the complexities of enterprise sideloading for another day.
The Store-only distribution model requires apps to pass local tests that come with Visual Studio before being uploaded and handed over to the Microsoft approval process before they're certified, digitally signed, and listed in the Windows Store.
If they're paid applications, Microsoft takes a cut and processes all the transactions. But it doesn't take a cut of any in-application transactions, unlike some other app stores.
The second approach is for desktop apps that are listed in the catalogue, but not hosted by Microsoft. There applications need to be certified and signed with a digital signature, but are downloaded from the vendor's own site or a third-part app store. Microsoft doesn't process transactions and doesn't take a cut.
It's that last approach that Microsoft was suggesting Minecraft's Notch should take — certifying his code for inclusion in the store listings, while still downloading it from his own site.
Additional level of trust
As Raphael Rivera detailed on Within Windows, this approach wasn't locking Minecraft away in a walled garden. It was just giving it an additional level of trust and a new distribution channel built into the OS. If he did want to be part of the Windows RT distribution model, Notch certainly has the option of taking his existing Xbox code and turning it onto a Windows Store application, moving it from one closed-store model to another, with some code changes. But that's not what Microsoft was suggesting here.
The argument that the Windows Store is a walled garden designed to lock out other software distribution mechanisms is a pervasive one, but it's also easy to refute. All you need do is look at the store.
Take Gabe Newell's issues with the Windows Store, which seem to centre on it locking his own Steam online market out of the Windows ecosystem. One of the more amusing things you'll find while exploring the depths of the Windows Store is Microsoft's own strategy game Age Of Empires Online.
It's a desktop application, so the Store link takes you to a web page. If you follow the download link on that page, you're taken straight to another online store for the download. It's not just any store, either — it's Valve's Steam.
Just follow the steps:
Microsoft isn't turning Windows 8 into a walled garden like iOS, though the Windows RT distribution model for ARM tablets is similar to Apple's. What's actually happening is that new channels are being opened up, new ways of distributing and developing software that work alongside the familiar ways we've used for much of the past 25 years or so.
Walled garden? What Microsoft is delivering is more like a mix of country cottage garden, formal garden, and walled garden — with a greenhouse thrown in for good measure. It's a whole Downton Abbey gardens' worth of software distribution, and that's not a bad thing.