A file with the .msix extension is a Windows application installer. Microsoft recently introduced MSIX as an alternative to EXE, MSI, and even AppX packages. Exercise caution and ensure you trust an MSIX file’s source before running it.

Windows Has Too Many Different Types of Installers

Currently, Windows has three common installer formats—MSI, EXE, and AppX. Each has different strengths and weaknesses.

MSI installers are best for simple, possibly unattended, installations. They use a basic install graphical user interface (GUI) that installs or uninstalls the program with no extras or options. At the very core, this installer is a compressed set of installer files containing all necessary data for the software. The install process won’t detect if the software already exists, or if any components are missing. It may overwrite any files in the install path. This simplicity means a silent, all-defaults install is a breeze for administrators to accomplish.

EXE installers are more versatile than MSI installers, but with the added capability comes complication. This installer can include options for languages, add-ons, detecting previous installations, and more. EXE installers allow for custom install paths and choosing which components to install. Developers can add their own branding to the GUI and incorporate language-specific terms of service or point to a webpage for a welcome message. But this, in turn, makes a silent unattended install much more difficult, and thus less useful in an enterprise situation.

AppX installers are used for Universal Windows Apps and share some of the benefits of MSI installers. They are simple, straight forward installers with few choices given to the end user. Additionally, they allow for an easier upgrade path from older versions of software to newer versions, and they allow for a cleaner uninstall. AppX installers also rely on container technology, so they are isolated from the rest of the operating system for security. Unfortunately, a program written for an MSI or EXE installer had to be rewritten or converted, perhaps with the help of tools, for the AppX package. And AppX packages can only be used with Windows 10, so older versions of Windows are out of luck.

MSIX Combines the Best Features of MSI and AppX

An MSIX file has the benefits of AppX while being similar to an MSI file. It is a straight forward installer that system administrators can even script for automatic, “unattended” installation. Additionally, it relies on container technology, which allows for smooth uninstalls and upgrades.

From a user perspective, an MSIX installs like an MSI file, but behind the scenes, it installs like an AppX file. Additionally, MSIX distribution outside the Microsoft Store is possible. And with this new process, it’s easier to bring older programs in and repackage them for MSIX.

MSIX Will Even Work on Windows 7, Linux, and More!

Perhaps the most exciting feature of MSIX is that Microsoft released an SDK to enhance cross-platform compatibility. As seen on their GitHub page, support is possible for iOS, MacOS, Android, Linux, and even older versions of Windows. Developers place special instructions in the MSIX files to allow it to identify the OS and what steps to take.

Programs Will Uninstall More Cleanly

When you install a program using an MSI and EXE, that program can make registry changes and create files and folders throughout your system. When you uninstall the program, these files and registry keys often get left behind, leaving clutter on your system.

With MSIX, programs are installed in a container and all their necessary files either stay within that container or follow precise, predictable rules about where those files may live (such as living in the AppData folder). When you uninstall, all the data goes with the program—no clutter left behind. That means your system will be cleaner going forward.

It’s Still an Installer, So Be Careful!

If you are looking at an MSIX file and wondering is it safe, the first question you should ask is where you obtained the installer. Like any other program installer, if you don’t trust the source, you shouldn’t open it.

Even before you download the file, you should take steps to ensure it is safe. Ultimately this is an installer, which means it can potentially install a fantastic program, a junk program, or something worse.

When Will I Start Seeing MSIX Files?

It might be a while before you see an MSIX file. Microsoft is still fine-tuning some of the promised capabilities and, until recently, only Insider builds of Windows 10 could create an MSIX package.

Even after fine tuning, developers and the installer technology providers they rely on will need to embrace, learn, and deploy the new package. That’s if they choose to at all; developers are free to continue creating EXE and MSI installers if they prefer. Adoption of a new format comes with risk and cost, so developers must weigh that against the benefits.

Josh Hendrickson Josh Hendrickson
Josh Hendrickson has worked in IT for nearly a decade, including four years spent repairing and servicing computers for Microsoft. He’s also a smarthome enthusiast who built his own smart mirror with just a frame, some electronics, a Raspberry Pi, and open-source code.
Read Full Bio »