Grant identity to non-packaged desktop apps

Many Windows extensibility features require package identity to be used from non-UWP desktop apps, including background tasks, notifications, live tiles, and share targets. For these scenarios, the operating system (OS) requires identity so that it can identify the caller of the corresponding API.

In OS releases before Windows 10, version 2004, the only way to grant identity to a desktop app is to package it in a signed MSIX package. For these apps, identity is specified in the package manifest and identity registration is handled by the MSIX deployment pipeline based on the information in the manifest. All content referenced in the package manifest is present inside the MSIX package.

Starting in Windows 10, version 2004, you can grant package identity to desktop apps that are not packaged in an MSIX package by building and registering a sparse package with your app. This support enables desktop apps that are not yet able to adopt MSIX packaging for deployment to use Windows 10 extensibility features that require package identity. For more background info, see this blog post.

To build and register a sparse package that grants package identity to your desktop app, follow these steps.

  1. Create a package manifest for the sparse package
  2. Build and sign the sparse package
  3. Add the package identity metadata to your desktop application manifest
  4. Register your sparse package at run time

Important concepts

The following features enable non-packaged desktop apps to acquire package identity.

Sparse packages

A sparse package contains a package manifest but no other app binaries and content. The manifest of a sparse package can reference files outside the package in a predetermined external location. This allows applications that are not yet able to adopt MSIX packaging for their entire app to acquire package identity as required by some Windows extensibility features.


A desktop app that uses a sparse package does not receive some benefits of being fully deployed via an MSIX package. These benefits include tamper protection, installation in a locked-down location, and full management by the OS at deployment, run time, and uninstall.

Package external location

To support sparse packages, the package manifest schema now supports an optional uap10:AllowExternalContent element under the Properties element. This allows your package manifest to reference content outside the package, in a specific location on disk.

For example, if you have your existing non-packaged desktop app that installs the app executable and other content in C:\Program Files\MyDesktopApp, you can create a sparse package that includes the uap10:AllowExternalContent element in the manifest. During the install process for your app, or the first time your app runs, you can install the sparse package and declare C:\Program Files\MyDesktopApp\ as the external location your app will use.

Create a package manifest for the sparse package

Before you can build a sparse package, you must first create a package manifest (a file named AppxManifest.xml) that declares package identity metadata for your desktop app and other required details. The easiest way to create a package manifest for the sparse package is to use the example below and customize it for your app by using the schema reference.

Make sure the package manifest includes these items:

  • An Identity element that describes the identity attributes for your desktop app.
  • An uap10:AllowExternalContent element under the Properties element. This element should be assigned the value true, which allows your package manifest to reference content outside the package, in a specific location on disk. In a later step, you'll specify the path of the external location when you register your sparse package from code that runs in your installer or your app. Any content that you reference in the manifest that isn’t located in the package itself should be installed to the external location.
  • The MinVersion attribute of the TargetDeviceFamily element should be set to 10.0.19000.0 or a later version.
  • The TrustLevel=mediumIL and RuntimeBehavior=Win32App attributes of the Application element declare that the desktop app associated with the sparse package will run similar to a standard unpackaged desktop app, without registry and file system virtualization and other run time changes.

The following example shows the complete contents of a sparse package manifest (AppxManifest.xml). This manifest includes a windows.sharetarget extension, which requires package identity.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
  IgnorableNamespaces="uap uap2 uap3 rescap desktop uap10">
  <Identity Name="ContosoPhotoStore" ProcessorArchitecture="x64" Publisher="CN=Contoso" Version="" />
    <Resource Language="en-us" />
    <TargetDeviceFamily Name="Windows.Desktop" MinVersion="10.0.19000.0" MaxVersionTested="10.0.19000.0" />
    <rescap:Capability Name="runFullTrust" />
    <rescap:Capability Name="unvirtualizedResources"/>
    <Application Id="ContosoPhotoStore" Executable="ContosoPhotoStore.exe" uap10:TrustLevel="mediumIL" uap10:RuntimeBehavior="win32App"> 
      <uap:VisualElements AppListEntry="none" DisplayName="Contoso PhotoStore" Description="Demonstrate photo app" BackgroundColor="transparent" Square150x150Logo="Assets\Square150x150Logo.png" Square44x44Logo="Assets\Square44x44Logo.png">
        <uap:DefaultTile Wide310x150Logo="Assets\Wide310x150Logo.png" Square310x310Logo="Assets\LargeTile.png" Square71x71Logo="Assets\SmallTile.png"></uap:DefaultTile>
        <uap:SplashScreen Image="Assets\SplashScreen.png" />
        <uap:Extension Category="windows.shareTarget">
          <uap:ShareTarget Description="Send to ContosoPhotoStore">

Build and sign the sparse package

After you create your package manifest, build the sparse package by using the MakeAppx.exe tool in the Windows SDK. Because the sparse package doesn’t contain the files referenced in the manifest, you must specify the /nv option, which skips semantic validation for the package.

The following example demonstrates how to create a sparse package from the command line.

MakeAppx.exe pack /d <path to directory that contains manifest> /p <output path>\MyPackage.msix /nv

Before your sparse package can be successfully installed on a target computer, you must sign it with a certificate that is trusted on the target computer. You can create a new self-signed certificate for development purposes and sign your sparse package using SignTool, which is available in the Windows SDK.

The following example demonstrates how to sign a sparse package from the command line.

SignTool.exe sign /fd SHA256 /a /f <path to certificate>\MyCertificate.pfx /p <certificate password> <path to sparse package>\MyPackage.msix

Add the package identity metadata to your desktop application manifest

You must also include a side-by-side application manifest with your desktop app. See Application manifests (it's the file that declares things like DPI awareness, and is embedded into your app's .exe during build). In that file, include an msix element with attributes that declare the identity attributes of your app. The values of these attributes are used by the OS to determine your app's identity when the executable is launched.

The following example shows a side-by-side application manifest with an msix element.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<assembly manifestVersion="1.0" xmlns="urn:schemas-microsoft-com:asm.v1">
  <assemblyIdentity version="" name="Contoso.PhotoStoreApp"/>
  <msix xmlns="urn:schemas-microsoft-com:msix.v1"

The attributes of the msix element must match these values in the package manifest for your sparse package:

  • The packageName and publisher attributes must match the Name and Publisher attributes in the Identity element in your package manifest, respectively.
  • The applicationId attribute must match the Id attribute of the Application element in your package manifest.

Register your sparse package at run time

To grant package identity to your desktop app, your app must register the sparse package by using the AddPackageByUriAsync method of the PackageManager class. This method is available starting in Windows 10, version 2004. You can add code to your app to register the sparse package when your app is run for the first time, or you can run code to register the package while your desktop app is installed (for example, if you're using MSI to install your desktop app, you can run this code from a custom action).

The following example demonstrates how to register a sparse package. This code creates an AddPackageOptions object that contains the path to the external location where your package manifest can reference content outside the package. Then, the code passes this object to the AddPackageByUriAsync method to register the sparse package. This method also receives the location of your signed sparse package as a URI. For a more complete example, see the StartUp.cs code file in the related sample.

private static bool registerSparsePackage(string externalLocation, string sparsePkgPath)
    bool registration = false;
        Uri externalUri = new Uri(externalLocation);
        Uri packageUri = new Uri(sparsePkgPath);

        Console.WriteLine("exe Location {0}", externalLocation);
        Console.WriteLine("msix Address {0}", sparsePkgPath);

        Console.WriteLine("  exe Uri {0}", externalUri);
        Console.WriteLine("  msix Uri {0}", packageUri);

        PackageManager packageManager = new PackageManager();

        // Declare use of an external location
        var options = new AddPackageOptions();
        options.ExternalLocationUri = externalUri;

        Windows.Foundation.IAsyncOperationWithProgress<DeploymentResult, DeploymentProgress> deploymentOperation = packageManager.AddPackageByUriAsync(packageUri, options);

        // Other progress and error-handling code omitted for brevity...


See the SparsePackages sample for a fully functional sample app that demonstrates how to grant package identity to a desktop app using a sparse package. More information about building and running the sample is provided in this blog post.

This sample includes the following:

  • The source code for a WPF app named PhotoStoreDemo. During startup, the app checks to see whether it is running with identity. If it is not running with identity, it registers the sparse package and then restarts the app. See StartUp.cs for the code that performs these steps.
  • A side-by-side application manifest named PhotoStoreDemo.exe.manifest.
  • A package manifest named AppxManifest.xml.