Microsoft takes steps to improve its Windows 8 business-app story

Microsoft has taken steps to ease onerous restrictions that have curtailed development of business applications for Windows 8. But some say the company still hasn't gone far enough.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Two years after Microsoft delivered Windows 8, there are still relatively few Metro-Style custom line-of-business applications available.


Microsoft's onerous requirements for sideloading Windows Store/Metro-Style apps is one of the reasons for the dearth. Sideloading is the way companies can deploy custom business Metro-Style apps to their users without going through the Windows Store.

The costs and licensing terms have deterred a number of businesses from even thinking about building "modern" line-of-business apps for Windows 8. But during Microsoft's Build 2014 conference, company officials addressed some of those limitations.

Magenic Chief Technology Officer Rockford Lhotka and a handful of others have been vocal critics of Microsoft's Windows 8 app sideloading policies. Some inside Microsoft itself have tired of the lack of progress on the sideloading front and attempted to circumvent the limitations with their own projects.

It seems Microsoft is ready to address at least some of the complaints. At the Build 2014, Microsoft officials anounced they had dropped the price the company is charging for developers to unlock their devices for sideloading.

Starting in May, Microsoft will be granting enterprise sideloading rights for any domain-joined Windows Pro PC or tablet to companies with certain volume license agreements. Line-of-business app sideloading rights will be available to volume licensees for about $100 for an unlimited number of Windows 8.1 devices. Before this change, Microsoft was charging developers $30 per device for unlocking keys.

Microsoft also announced some new tools designed to help developers create and deploy touch-centric business apps running on Windows 8.1 Update, which the company began rolling out to Windows 8.1 users last week. Among those tools:

  • Brokered Windows Runtime Components: Allows sideloaded Windows Store apps to access Windows runtime components running outside of the app container
  • Network Loopback: Sideloaded Windows Store apps can communicate with desktop processes and apps via network loopback. Developers can build touch-centric apps while using existing code that depends on Win32 or Base Class Library components, which is otherwise unavailable to Windows Store apps.
  • Windows Notification Services: Sideloaded Windows Store apps can receive push notifications via Windows Notification Services.

Lhotka said the changes were good but still didn't go far enough in terms of helping developers actually install apps onto their devices. In a new blog post last week, he noted that users will still have to pay a per device/per month cost -- ranging from $6 to $11 -- for mobile-device management using Windows Intune.

"I think Microsoft has taken a substantial step in the right direction with the changes to the cost and availability of side loading keys. Couple this with the increasing maturity of projects like (Magenic's open-source) OrgPortal and CompanyStore and I think we’re getting to the point where WinRT (the Windows 8 runtime programming interface) is something to consider for business app development," Lhotka said.

Some other users were still not convinced that sideloading is viable, even with Microsoft's changes, however.

User "SleepDaddySoft" noted in the comments of Microsoft's blog post that charging for a sideloading license makes developing WinRT/Windows 8 Metro-Style apps a non-starter.

"WinRT will NEVER be a viable platform for LOB apps until you get rid of the side-loading license," he said. "Why would anyone spend resources to make a WinRT LOB app that can only be deployed to customers with a an enterprise licence, or for whom you purchase a side-loading license, when we can just as easily create a web app or a desktop windows app, or an android app, or a Mac OS X desktop app, for free, without your permission?

"It's simple. Stop being stupid and get rid of the side-loading license requirement for everyone, on every version of windows and on every device. Then watch as developers of all types, from LOB business app developers to open source scientific/medical app developers, to DIY (do it yourself) Kinect/Rift/WearableComputing/NextBigThing geeks do Amazing Things™ on Windows, and then see the windows store and the platform in general benefit from the network effects of all that active development," SleepDaddySoft said.

In a related move, Microsoft also announced that volume licensees with Software Assurance for Windows or Windows Embedded will have access to both Windows Enterprise and Windows Embedded industry SKUs. Microsoft execs said the introduction of the new Windows Embedded Industry didn't mean Microsoft is discontinuing any of its existing Windows Embedded versions and/or replacing them with Windows Embedded Industry.

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