29 Jun 2017 • Writing installers for Windows

Writing a software installer for Windows is apparently a slog of people with weird configs and requests asking for things that are impossible to implement nicely.

Everyone has to do this and it's conceptually so trivial (extract an archive) so it's baffling how this is so difficult to get right, and it's crazy to think about how much time is wasted on this shit. I'm not a fuckup, and in total I've probably wasted several days on this.

The biggest roadblock is that Google is just completely worthless. You try to search for something and the results are saturated with absolute shit that's totally unrelated because for whatever reason Google puts huge weight on popular/recent articles that are only very loosely related to what you want. "Oh he has Windows and uninstall in the query, let's return millions of forum posts asking how to uninstall software!" etc. Of course that means this blog post is excruciatingly dull to write with no benefit because nobody can find it.

The hardest part is getting a nice system-wide or single-user installation without running into UAC sadness.

I know this is an extremely boring topic, but that's exactly why I want to write about it. When I run into stuff this dull my brain switches off and it takes me 10x longer than it should. If someone told me exactly how to deal with this up front and I could just autopilot through it would have been a huge win.

The ideal way would be to only request admin rights if they want to do a system-wide installation, which requires you to re-exec the installer and ask for admin, then implement some hacks to jump to the right screen. Also cross your fingers that browsers don't delete the installer as soon as it exits if you click "run" instead of "save". Not sure if any of them actually do that but it's a huge amount of testing that nobody wants to do and very fragile against the instability of webshit.

So you give up on doing it properly and always present a UAC dialog when they run the installer. To save you some time Googling, the right way to do this is with MultiUser.nsh (*). The docs for it are ok, but it crucially doesn't cover how the uninstaller should identify what version it should remove. Ideally you should be able to install both system-wide and per-user at the same time, and be able to uninstall them both separately (not because this is a valuable thing to do but because it shows that your uninstaller can figure out the right thing to do). The answer is !define MULTIUSER_INSTALLMODE_COMMANDLINE and add /$MultiUser.InstallMode to the end of your UninstallString key (so the installer stores what mode control panel should run the uninstaller with). You DON'T need to do anything funny to make sure your uninstaller registry keys get written to the write place (HKLM for system-wide, HKCU for single-user), just use WriteRegStr SHCTX ... and it'll do the right thing.

(*): I came back and reread this post. By "the right way" I don't mean that MultIuser.nsh is good. It gets a lot of things wrong, but it's the least bad option. This other plugin looks a bit better but I didn't try it.

Btw have fun testing this. You have to log in and out after every one-line change (sloooooooow on Windows), and you'll never notice if you break something later on because surely you aren't going to leave UAC enabled.

Another topic that's annoying to get right: uninstaller signing. Make a stub installer that only writes the uninstaller and quits, sign the uninstaller, then add it with File, ...