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Deploying CF .NET 2.0 applications using MSI

January 17, 2007

So I’ve been developing Smart Device apps for the last two years, both in VS2003 and now in VS2005. But as the only CF developer in a tiny shop, I have always been able to install them by just using the Deployment option in Visual Studio. Now, however, one of the products I’ve been working on is ready to go to the field for some testing, which means other people have to be able to install it.

Frankly, most of the documentation on deplying CF.NET apps is pretty scary. CAB files, custom INI files, Registry entries, the works. I’ve definitely been spoiled by the MSI features available to Windows forms apps. So I’ve been digging around and experimenting, and I created a CAB file for install and then found the Smart Device CAB project, so I created that but it still required the user to manually copy it over to the device and double click it and yada yada yada. Too much for most of my target audience, and not very professional.

So I dug some more, and I was about to give up, when I found this article on MSDN about using MSI to handle the install to a Smart Device. I went through the article, and after a little trial an error I got it to work. Here are the highlights:

  1. Create your solution and build all the projects. Use Release to keep them as small as possible.
  2. Add a Smart Device CAB project to your solution. Add all your project outputs to the applications folder and add a shortcut to your EXE to the Program Files folder. Build this project.
  3. Add a new Class Library project to your solution. This is an MSI installer helper class that handles events like before_install and after_install. The cool thing is that these events will be found and used automagically later. Fill out the events and build this project. This file has some Registry stuff in it and references a custom INI file that you will need to create, but the forumla is very simple.
  4. Add a new Setup project to your solution. This will be the MSI file that is eventually used to communicate with ActiveSync and install the CF application. By adding custom actions to the installer and referencing the helper DLL we created in step 3, the before and after events will automagically find themselves and fire.

OK, so this is in no way a step by step instruction list. For that, you will want to read the article (like 20 times). It is a little dense but thorough, and I was able to get it to work. I did encounter a permissions problem in the afterInstall event, so I still need to hash that one out, but it did install the app on my device.

One quirk I found was that the article instructs you to add a reference in the MSI project to the System folder and to place your output there for the CABs and the INI file. Unfortunately, this doesn’t jive with the pathing samples in the Helper class code in the article, which references System/TEMP/MyProject. In looking at it, I think the TEMP path is the best way to go, so just create the TEMP/MyProject path in the System special folder and dump your output CAB and INI files there.

Next I’ll be tackling how to integrate CF .NET deployment in the same MSI, so stay tuned.

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