We no longer live in an era where the ubiquity of an operating system can lend popularity to applications. As evidence, just look at Windows Phone.

But there may be plenty more opportunities for Windows to get in the cloud’s way if its architectural evolution cannot keep pace with the demands of users.

One case in point, which we learned a great deal more about last Friday at the Ignite conference in Chicago, concerns a feature called User Experience Virtualization (UE-V).

The Portability Problem

UE-V is by no means new. It was designed several years ago as a way for Windows applications to be installed once for each user, and used anywhere without having to reinstall the user. You still had to reinstall the application, but if you had Excel installed on three different machines at the office, the same user could launch Excel from any one of them, and the user would see her preferences and personal files.

“If you think about a user environment, it starts with an operating system, right?” asked Peter De Tender, Microsoft’s infrastructure expert, during a session last Friday morning. “We have our physical machine or maybe our VDI client — it starts with the operating system. Next to that, we have our applications. What would the user do on his machine if he doesn’t have any applications?”

At the time he asked this, the question sounded perfectly rhetorical, like asking where would we be today without air? By the end of the session, a completely different potential answer had emerged.

Various little birds, at least one of whom sports a goatee and a bolo, have suggested to Microsoft this answer before: UE-V could facilitate cloud-based applications deployment.

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At Ignite, De Tender (pictured above, left) and fellow infrastructure architect Adnan Hendricks (above right) revealed that they are now experimenting with tying UE-V with Azure Active Directory, the company’s forthcoming cloud-based business authentication service.

“The possible future is integrating — first of all, adopting Windows 10, and integrating with a cloud back-end,” said De Tender. He’s talking about the potential for UE-V to enable a scenario where Windows 10 applications have their binary files stored locally, but their licenses, user preferences, and customizations stored on Azure.

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Such a setup could eliminate the need for “synchronization” as we know it. Any licensed user of an application could log onto any Windows 10 device, launch that application, and pick up where he left off.

Of course, if that application were being served to you from the cloud to begin with, using another existing technology such as App-V, then theoretically the prospects broaden even more: Any licensed application user could run an application from any Windows device at all, without it needing to be installed there first.

The Illusion of Locality

This would be far from an automated system, however.

UE-V is designed as a hub for managing user profiles, and for now, system administrators perform the management role. This is because Windows applications “believe” they are being run from local installations on the client side; and, if they are to continue behaving in a compatible manner, that belief must be maintained, if only by illusion.

As De Tender and Hendricks demonstrated, the way UE-V works today is somewhat like the old way folks would record a macro in Excel. You start the recorder, then start the application whose settings you wish to make “roaming.” You change several of the settings in that application, which requests that those changes be stored to the local System Registry.

The UE-V agent then intercepts those requests and stores a copy of those changes in a remote template file. That template can then be applied to any system to which UE-V has access. That’s not every client on the Internet, but typically every system on the office network.

A cloud-based version would theoretically apply this template everywhere the user went, from a distribution mechanism hosted by Microsoft on Azure. When a Windows 10 user logs on with an Azure Active Directory account (a new feature that will not become available in Windows 8.1 or earlier, we’re told), Azure will associate the authenticated user with his UE-V templates.

Theoretically. First of all, users have to want this feature. One way that could happen, Hendricks suggested, is if an Azure-based UE-V were launched as a way for Windows 7 business users to migrate their existing settings to Windows 10. That way, users could install the new operating system as an upgrade without having to start over from scratch with every application they’ve ever installed.

Hendricks and De Tender did confirm that a new version of UE-V will be shipped to coincide with the release of Office 2016, in order to enable a new settings synchronization feature that Microsoft is not in a position to disclose just yet.

If it were to become possible for both applications and user extensions to be stored and delivered in the cloud, then much of the original purpose of the Windows client would arguably become irrelevant. And the answer to the question, “What would the user do on his machine if he doesn’t have any applications?” could become, “Everything.”