The announcement of a collaboration with Amazon to bring Android apps to the Windows desktop was one of Microsoft's official presentation highlights for Windows 11. Even more interesting, however, was the semi-official revelation that Windows 11 will also allow users to sideload apps.
But why? What is sideloading and why should you (or not) be interested in it? Read on to find the answers to these questions and more!
What is sideloading?
The term "sideloading" refers to the direct copying of files from one device to another. Sideloading typically describes local transfers between two devices that are physically connected. However, it differs from simply "copying" in that it involves an unofficial way of getting data where it shouldn't be.
Depending on the case, this may be because the platform owner does not release the relevant data or the user has to deactivate or bypass protective measures in order to get the data on the device.
We believe that it is easier to understand what sideloading is when you take a quick step back in time.
IPhone prison break
Although we had smartphones decades before Apple entered, the iPhone brought them to the masses. Unlike its ancestors, the iPhone was slim, light, and easy to use. And like all Apple products, it was also heavily locked down to limit the user to its ecosystem.
It was around this time that "jailbreaking", an umbrella term for the methods by which a user could break free from a manufacturer-imposed "software jail", became popular. After jailbreaking their device, iPhone owners could install whatever software they wanted on it, even if Apple didn't approve it.
Official Android support for unofficial software
Google's Android was the answer to Apple's iOS. Initially, Android's software library was not as extensive as that of iOS. But that should soon no longer be a problem.
Android was not only based on open source technologies such as Linux and JAVA, but was also more "open" itself. Anyone could create software for this and use their smartphone or tablet as a test platform for their apps. You just had to enable a semi-hidden option to allow apps to be installed from untrusted sources.
This option is useful even if you're not a developer, as it allows you to install anything on the platform. After enabling the option, you can skip the Play Store. Instead, you can transfer apps in the form of an APK file and install them with a simple file manager. For more information on the process, see our guide on how to sideload files on your Android device.
The openness of Android also made it possible for third parties to create their own software stores for the platform. The largest and most popular alternative to Google's Play Store is the Amazon Appstore, which we will see in Windows 11 at some point.
Nowadays, sideloading refers to installing software from outside the software repository / app store that is officially supported by the manufacturer of a device.
After you've turned off any associated security checks, you can sideload software by copying (or "pushing") files to a device, usually a PC. You can do this using either a direct USB cable connection, wireless Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth file transfer. Alternatively, you can save files on media that can be accessed by both devices (such as SD cards or USB flash drives).
Why is sideloading important for Windows 11?
Smartphones have become ubiquitous extensions of ourselves. We all have a number of apps that we use for them every day. However, these apps remain tied to our mobile devices – and with them to us too.
There are a few ways to run Android apps on your PC:
You could install an Android x86 port locally on your PC or in a virtual machine, but the results would be far from perfect. For example, the microphone may not work, rendering all sound recording apps useless.
You could use the emulator that comes with Android's SDK, but its performance might make you wonder if you turned on your PC.
Third-party emulators perform much better, but they offer a highly customized Android experience that is far from what you would expect from a typical Android device. Unfortunately, most also come with apps you may not want and keep trying to force new ones on you as you use them.
One of the best new features in Windows 11 is the compatibility layer for Android software. Thanks to this feature, we don't have to use our smartphone or an ad-strewn emulator to access our favorite mobile apps on our PCs. Instead, they can be found directly on our desktop – at least if they are also available in the Amazon App Store. If it doesn't, sideloading can help!
By freely sideloading Android apps, Windows 11 allows access to any software ever created for the Android platform, not just those hosted by Amazon.
This results in a huge software library, similar to the fact that Windows doesn't limit you to a single software source. Yes, modern Windows versions have their own store. However, it is up to you, the user, to decide whether to use it, what to install, and from where.
However, that is also a problem.
The dark side of sideloading
One of the main reasons many people deal with security problems on Windows is that they download and install software from untrustworthy sources. Software that may have viruses, Trojans, keyloggers, or other malicious and unwanted "bonuses" attached to it. It is up to the user to make sure that the software they are installing is safe and many skip this step.
We don't know how safe Microsoft's implementation of their Android compatibility layer will be. What we do know is that it is more complicated to have than not to have. And in the world of data security, “additional complexity” always means “more potentially exploitable gaps”.
Using Amazon or Google as the only source for Android apps is admittedly a bit restrictive. However, it also ensures that most of the software you can get from the Play Store is safe. The software repository key holder reviews all software it hosts. If they find an unsafe app, they can quickly remove it before it reaches many users.
The ability to run any software means you don't have any pesky restrictions, but neither do you have the protection of an app store's key holder. For example, an unofficial app could contain code that exploits a vulnerability in Microsoft's Android implementation. Such a loophole could allow a malicious app to get outside of Android and into the host operating system (Windows 11). Then you get access to your precious personal files.
For this reason, while sideloading is not illegal, it is not supported by device manufacturers and platform owners. But on the contrary; Many, like Apple, consider sideloading to be a serious security risk.
Sideloading extends Windows
Thanks to its compatibility with its previous versions and almost all software developed for it, every new Windows version has access to a huge software library that cannot be reached by any other platform. However, building software for Windows these days can also be more complex and less fruitful.
Combined with the continued popularity of Apple's devices and Google's "mobile-first" strategy, this has led many developers to prioritize or switch directly to iOS and Android. The Windows ecosystem is littered with old software. Microsoft's store looks like a barren wasteland of mobile me-too apps.
By accessing Android's software library, Microsoft can freshen Windows 11 while giving us access to the apps we already use every day.
However, allowing the user to sideload any software they want can also be a potential security risk.
It will be interesting to see how Microsoft implements Windows 11 support for Android apps. It could lead to Windows expanding its already huge software library or becoming a new avenue for exploits for Microsoft's next operating system. Judging by the past, we bet it will likely be a bit of both.
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About the author
(3 articles published)
OK's real life started at 10 when he got his first computer – a Commodore 128. He has since melted keycaps by typing around the clock and trying to spread The Word Of Tech to anyone interested enough to listen . Or rather read.
From Odysseas Kourafalos
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