Microsoft Click-to-Run: The future of software delivery?

New, experimental technology makes downloading and installing Microsoft Office 2010 as easy as loading apps on your phone

Remember when you used to buy software at Egghead? With the demise of CompUSA, the days of the specialist PC vendor are all but over. Today's consumers are more likely to find their software at big-box vendors like Best Buy or Staples, shelved side by side with everything from CDs and DVDs to office furniture and paper towels. As a result, it's now that much harder for small software vendors to reach customers in the retail channel.

Direct downloads are the obvious solution. The Web doesn't just cut out the middlemen in the sales cycle; it also eliminates the cost of boxes, shrink wrap, CD duplication, shipping, and all of the other expenses that simply aren't necessary when software can be delivered directly to customers in a matter of minutes.

[ Read the InfoWorld Test Center's preview of Office 2010 and view our Office 2010 slideshow. | Learn about the application virtualization technology that makes Click-to-Run possible. ]

But selling software over the Web isn't always as easy as it sounds. Traditional installer packages are hardly the ideal way to distribute applications to home computer users, many of whom have little experience managing and troubleshooting software installations. For large, complex software suites, just the time required to download the installer can be prohibitive, even over a broadband Internet connection.

Microsoft thinks it has a solution. As part of the Office 2010 beta test program, customers can install a version of the productivity suite using a technology called Microsoft Click-to-Run, which streams the software to the user in stages, rather than downloading it all at once. If successful, the new system could not only transform the way software is delivered, but it could also create new revenue for opportunities for vendors in the modern, Net-centric software market.

Almost virtual
Click-to-Run is partially based on Microsoft Application Virtualization -- App-V for short -- a technology Microsoft acquired when it purchased Softricity in 2006. App-V allows network administrators to centrally manage applications on a server and stream them to users as application "containers," complete with their associated operating environment and settings.

Click-to-Run extends the App-V idea to Internet scale. Users who sign up to beta-test Office Home and Business 2010 don't need to download a full installer, which normally would weigh in at around 700MB. Instead, they download a 2MB launcher, which proceeds to configure their systems and download the necessary components from Microsoft's servers. Everything is automatic; they are asked no questions, and there are no options to configure.

Another feature of Click-to-Run is that users don't have to wait for the entire suite to download to begin using the applications. Instead, modules are downloaded and installed as users need them. On the downside, this means the applications may occasionally become unresponsive as they fetch new features from Microsoft's servers. But each module only needs to be downloaded once, and the upshot is that users can get up and running with basic features that much more quickly.

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