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Thinstall app virtualization grows up

Randall C. Kennedy | Aug. 8, 2008
ThinApp is shaping up to be a great successor to the powerful, yet frustratingly incomplete Thinstall of yore.

Packaging science

I tested ThinApp running in a virtual machine under VMware Workstation 6.5 beta, with Windows Server 2008 as the underlying host OS. The familiar Setup Capture utility, a holdover from Thinstall, remains the heart of the ThinApp packaging experience. The utility rivals Symantec SVS in terms of procedural simplicity. Just start Setup Capture and then run your application's setup/installation program while the utility captures the various file system and registry changes. But Setup Capture's lack of an advanced mode, where some of the more complex ThinApp configuration options could be exposed, continues to undermine its usefulness.

As with ThinApp's predecessor, you need to do a bit of package.INI file hacking in order to flip many of the more sophisticated switches and settings, including those related to the aforementioned AppSync feature. According to VMware, the company is actively exploring ways to expand and improve upon the Setup Capture UI, and we may even see something akin to the VMware ACE companion to VMware Workstation as ThinApp matures. But for now, true mastery means getting to know package.INI and the rest of the ThinApp build components.

Fortunately for me, I'd spent some time rummaging around these very resources during my earlier reviews of Thinstall. Getting the packages in my test VM to auto-update from a Web server running on the host was a simple matter of editing a single line in the package.INI and then copying the finished package to the target URL. Likewise, I was able to create a link between a packaged version of Paint.Net and a discrete package of the .Net Framework 2.0 using a single entry, with the resulting componentized application loading up flawlessly under a pristine installation of Windows XP Professional.

Overall, ThinApp is shaping up to be a great successor to the powerful, yet frustratingly incomplete Thinstall of yore. However, the product is not without its shortcomings. Although you can hard-code an AppSync update URL into a package, there's no easy way to change this URL at the package level if the update server goes down. And while it's great to be able to update a package over the Web, the AppSync model fails to address the problem of license compliance and how a host site might control user access under a subscriptions-based computing model. These are issues that VMware will need to address if it hopes to thwart the inevitable SoftGrid-powered SaaS designs of Microsoft. In the meantime, ThinApp does a great job of carrying Thinstall's mantle forward as part of the VMware family.


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