Microsoft’s Universal Windows Platform (UWP) explained
There’s nothing like a good bit of computer jargon to confuse and bewilder people and frankly this particular issue continues to confuse even seasoned Windows geeks like us. You may not have heard about the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) before, unless you read the IT press or computer gaming websites. UWP will become more relevant as Windows 10 continues to mature, but just what is this Universal Windows Platform and what does it mean for you? Read on and we will try to explain.
The apps formally known as Metro
Windows users are all familiar with running applications, after all, that’s what an operating system is for. Your web browser, Microsoft Office or OpenOffice, calculator or computer games, they’re all applications that Windows helps you run. Until recently, a Windows application meant an executable (.exe) file. Usually this would be installed by an installer program and then started from the Start menu.
In Windows 8, Microsoft introduced the Windows Store app and with it a new kind of app for the PC. Back then, these apps were called “Metro” apps. That name was quickly dropped due to a potential trademark infringement. Since then, Microsoft has called them “Windows Store apps”, “Trusted apps”, “Trusted Windows Store apps”, “Universal Windows Platform” or “UWP” apps and even just “Windows” apps. You may have been using these new apps without even realising it. If you’ve run the Windows Store, the Calculator or the Microsoft Edge web browser, for instance, then you’ve used a UWP app on your PC. If you’ve bought our Windows 10 Superguide, you will know these apps as “Trusted Windows Store” apps.
Windows desktop apps, useful but dangerous?
Traditional Windows desktop apps come as executable files. Usually, they are installed and stored in the program files folder on your PC. You can find and use Windows desktop apps from a variety of places. You can still buy them on optical media from many bricks and mortar stores, or you can download them from the internet.
There are thousands, possibly millions of useful Windows desktop apps, but It wasn’t long before more nefarious individuals realised that it was entirely possible to write applications that, rather than being helpful or fun, were designed with malicious intent instead. On early versions of Windows, this was particularly easy. As long as you could write a program and fool any user into running it, you could wreak havoc on any part of the system.
To help with this problem, operating systems soon came up with the concept of permissions and user levels. Windows XP had this system, but it wasn’t until Windows Vista that most home users started to take advantage of it. In modern versions of Windows, it’s not quite as simple as writing a malicious app and tricking a user into running it. In order to do real harm to your computer an app needs administrator permissions. Most Windows users will be familiar with the UAC prompt that appears when making changes to the PC. If this prompt appears out of the blue, savvy Windows users know to just click “No”.
Permissions and user account controls went a long way toward making Windows more secure, but it’s not like malware went away altogether. Apart from social engineering tricks, that convince users to click “Yes” on that UAC prompt and install or activate malicious software, malware engineers have found ways around the UAC prompts and other ways they can install or activate malware by side-stepping the security process entirely. Now that online shopping and banking are more common, the black market for malware has become even more lucrative, prompting criminal gangs to come up with increasingly nefarious malware.
If you run a malicious Windows desktop application on your PC, particularly if you grant it administrator permissions, then the damage it can do to your system is severe. Windows has various safeguards against this and antivirus suites aim to identify and block malicious windows Desktop apps before they can be run, but no system is foolproof
UWP Apps – Thinking differently about security
Are you familiar with the Apple iPhone or iPad? If so, you might be aware that there’s no antivirus software on the iPhone. That’s not Apple being negligent, it’s because it has never been needed. On the iPhone, Apple carefully controls the apps that are available through its own iTunes store. Furthermore, each app runs in its own “Sandbox” environment. What does this mean exactly? In Newsletter issue 33 we explained it thus:
Remember when you were a child, you probably played in a sandbox (more commonly called a sand pit here in the UK). In your own little domain, you were free to build and destroy without affecting anyone else and, as long as you never got sand in your eyes, without any risk either.
In computing, the term sandboxing derives from these halcyon childhood days. An app that is “Sandboxed” is isolated from every other app in the OS. If an error occurs in your sandboxed app, or if the sandboxed app tries to do something malicious, there’s no way for it to affect anything else on the computer because of the sandboxing process. In practise, apps do need access to certain directories. The photos app, for instance, wouldn’t be much use if it couldn’t access your photographs, but this extra layer of security means that you can use UWP apps much more safely.
Did you know?
Until recently, unless you were a software developer you could only download UWP apps from the Windows Store. However, Microsoft recently changed this so that UWP apps could be downloaded from anywhere. Microsoft still recommend using only the Windows Store, since UWP apps on there have supposedly been vetted by Microsoft before being made available, but this is a turn of events that surprised many in the IT industry who anticipated Microsoft’s move to UWP as part of a plan to lock users into the Windows store.
Apart from better security, Microsoft has designed UWP apps so that they can easily run on Windows Phone, desktop and tablet with little or no extra work required by the programmers.
Given the security benefits of UWP apps, you might wonder why more people aren’t recommending them. Unfortunately, with the extra layer of security comes several trade offs. These are felt most keenly by the enthusiastic PC gaming community. Thanks to the sandboxing, games released using the UWP model are, thus far at least, incompatible with screen recorders, in-game overlays, user developed mods, cheats and enhancements and even proper full-screen modes. HowToGeek has an extensive list of the issues in this article.
These limitations aren’t just applicable to games. Clearly, given the restrictions of the platform, some apps just aren’t going to work. Something like a full disk backup package, by its very nature, needs access to all the files on your PC, not just its own sandboxed workspace.
However, these applications are the exception rather than the rule. There’s no reason that something like the Windows calculator, for example, would ever need access to the rest of the program files on your PC.
Is UWP the future?
Microsoft believe UWP will become an important part of Windows future, but the platform feels immature at the moment. Even outside of gaming, apps downloaded from the Windows store often feel like a pale imitation of what’s available for the desktop. Sure, they’re a good fit for Windows tablets, but on the desktop, where work gets done, we don’t currently use a single Windows Store/UWP app with any regularity, except maybe Calculator. Popular technology website Ars Technica recently reviewed the UWP version of Dropbox and their review highlights some of the limitations of the platform. You can read it here.
In most cases, you don’t really need to worry if the application you’re running is a UWP or a regular desktop app. Just remember that downloading apps from the internet carries some risk, while a UWP app may have limitations that a desktop version does not. Keep this in mind when shopping for apps in the Windows store.
Windows 10 Anniversary update brings Linux to Windows?
Microsoft continues to add new features to Windows 10, and with the one year anniversary of the operating system looming, the Redmond giant unveiled some new features at its recent Build conference. One of the most surprising features was that Linux would be coming to Windows 10, sort of at least. For those of you unfamiliar with Linux, it’s an alternative operating system that is popular mostly with technical people and programmers. While it’s something of a sweeping statement, many people agree that the GUI (the graphical element) of Windows is much better than Linux, but the command prompt (known as Bash) is better in Linux. The new update of Windows 10 won’t bring full Linux compatibility to Windows, but apps that run in the command line will work. This is useful for software developers and techies who (like us) prefer Windows for their day to day operating system but occasionally need a command-line tool in Linux. If you rarely, or never, use the command prompt (cmd.exe or Powershell) in windows, this feature is unlikely to be of any interest to you.
If you’re not a software developer you might be more interested in the changes Microsoft has planned for the Start menu. Microsoft are considering a minor cosmetic change that moves the “All apps” section and makes it more prominent. The Start screen is also getting some improvements, with a return to the all apps view that Windows 8 had. You can see these proposed changes and even cast a vote on them by visiting this page.
The update also promises to bring improvements to the UWP apps (see our main article this month). This is mostly features for gaming, though Microsoft may relax some other restrictions allowing UWP apps to embrace wider functionality.
Also in the update, Cortana is supposedly getting smarter and will be able to act more autonomously on your behalf. This can include sending e-mails or updating your calendar. What could possibly go wrong there, we wonder? Microsoft also suggested that a new tool would allow developers to more easily convert existing Windows desktop apps into Windows Store apps, thus bolstering the selection of software available in the store.
Finally, if you’re lucky enough to have a PC with biometric authentication (one you can unlock just by looking at it) you will be able to log into websites using the same biometric system, very convenient!
No date is set for the anniversary update just yet, but given that it’s an anniversary update, we can expect it to land on or around July 29th 2016.
That concludes our newsletter for April. On behalf of the team here at TWT, I’d like to say thank you to all our readers, new and old for your continued support. The TWT Newsletter will return on the 10th May 2016 for more tips, tricks and techniques to help you get the best out of your PC, be it Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8 or Windows 10. We hope that you found this newsletter informative and useful. If you did not then please let us know why, you can contact us by visiting this page. If you have enjoyed this newsletter, feel free to pass it on to all your friends and family, or better still encourage them to sign up for their own copy. Until next month, keep checking Top-Windows-Tutorials.com and enjoy happy, safe and stress-free computing!