Amazon WorkSpaces Gains App Subscriptions but Still Falls Short

Amazon has taken a big step forward in its application delivery strategy, taking to the stage at the April AWS Summit in San Francisco to announce the introduction of AWS Marketplace for Desktop Apps, a dedicated storefront for Amazon’s Desktop as a Service platform, Amazon WorkSpaces, through which customers can purchase off-the-shelf applications to run on their virtual desktops. At the same time, Amazon VP Andy Jassy announced the availability of a new admin tool, WorkSpaces Application Manager, which controls admin and user access to marketplace apps. 

Up until now, the only choices available to WorkSpaces customers were either to use a GPO-based installer or to create custom Amazon Machine Images (AMIs). Both approaches work, but fall well short of alternatives offered by other DaaS vendors, so this is a very welcome and much-needed update. WorkSpaces Application Manager (WAM) uses application virtualization to containerize apps and stream them down to the desktop on demand. Unfortunately, while the idea is sound, Amazon’s implementation leaves a lot to be desired.

For reasons best known to itself, Amazon has not published the list of applications outside of the desktop applications marketplace, providing only a summary of application types and a handful of featured applications. The full list of applications isn’t accessible until at least one virtual desktop has been created. So, keen to learn more, I handed over the credit card and got to work. A list of all the applications available at the time of writing is provided at the end of this article.

With a desktop created, I was able to access the full list of applications in the marketplace. Amazon promises “access to over 100 applications” spanning illustration and design, GIS and mapping, AP and billing, productivity and collaboration, project management, media and encoding, security, storage and archiving, application and web development, and business intelligence. Several applications appeared to be missing in action, as I could initially find only 82 apps visible in the catalog. After receiving assurances from Amazon that the current inventory extended to 107 applications, I looked again and found the “missing” apps, which were hidden by some amateurish UI design flaws that should never have reached production, and which left me questioning whether or not any testing had been done prior to release. Since the initial release, Amazon has continued to add new apps to the marketplace, taking the number up to 112, and I expect it to continue to add new applications in the coming weeks. While 112 apps may appear to be a substantial number, of the currently available apps, over half are freeware and a significant number are near duplicates: there are three different versions of Python and three different editions of Lulu Software’s Soda PDF editor, Microsoft Office and Project are available in both 2010 and 2013 releases and as both Professional and Standard editions, and so on. You can’t use all of the applications straight out of the box: several apps require the Java Runtime Environment, which is not part of the default AMI used to create WorkSpaces desktops. However, Amazon has gone to the trouble of tagging these apps with a brief note to this effect, and it offers several recommendations as to how to address this in the WorkSpaces support forum, if you go looking for it.

If Amazon hasn’t gone out of its way to make the list of marketplace applications easy to access, it hasn’t gone out of its way to make them easy on the wallet, either. While Amazon VP Andy Jassy announced during the Thursday morning keynote that the intent is simplifying software licensing issues by allowing customers to pay by the month, he didn’t go so far as to suggest that it would result in any savings. For example, Corel PaintShop Pro X7 is listed on AWS Marketplace at $6.50 per user per month, yet the same package can be bought outright from Amazon’s e-commerce property for just $55. If you only need a desktop and applications for a couple of months, Amazon WorkSpaces prices are attractive, but for anyone looking for a long-term commitment, falling back to conventional licenses will result in substantial savings.

Subscribing to AWS Marketplace apps is straightforward. The first step in getting apps onto the desktop is to build an application catalog. Adding AWS Marketplace apps is as simple as selecting the application and acknowledging the terms and conditions, and you’re done. With an application catalog created, the next step is to assign applications to users. It’s possible to assign applications as either required or optional, and to specify whether or not applications also update if new packages are deployed; beyond that, there’s nothing to it. Just don’t attempt to assign more than five applications at a time, unless you like reading error messages. Adding your own apps requires a little more work. As with other application virtualization/streaming solutions, the applications must go through a packaging process using the Amazon WorkSpaces Application Manager Admin Studio, which looks very much like a white-labeled version of Numecent’s Application Jukebox Studio.

The only way to access the Admin Studio is through a dedicated Amazon Machine Image, which Amazon recommends be on an m3.xlarge or better instance type connected through a separate dedicated VPC. While it is certainly understandable that a pristine image is used to capture application installs, I’m not sure that restricting the Admin Studio to a specific AMI is the right way to go. Right from the start, it deviates from the desktop admin’s preferred single image management approach to VDI. In time, drift between the Admin Studio AMI and the WorkSpaces AMI(s) could introduce unforeseen problems. By default, users don’t have permission to access WAM resources, so before launching the packaging instance, you must first create two new Identity and Access Management (IAM) roles, which grant WAM permission to perform actions on your behalf. All this poking around in the guts of AWS may not present any problems for experienced admins, but it effectively closes the door to non-IT people looking to build their own Amazon WorkSpaces desktop. Once you have copied your application installer up to the cloud so it is accessible to the Admin Studio, the actual packaging process is pretty straightforward. The Admin Studio behaves just like any other application packager, capturing all files, fonts, services, and drivers, as well as changes to the registry, environment variables, and startup folders. Once information is captured, it’s possible to then go in and edit any of this information, adding, removing, or changing captured values to customize the package, before uploading the finished package into WAM. After that, it’s back to the AWS console to register the package (uploading it from the Admin Studio doesn’t do this step for you) before you can assign it to your users.

Amazon WorkSpaces Application Manager Click to Enlarge
Amazon WorkSpaces Application Manager
Click to Enlarge

If the admin side of WAM is a little unfriendly, the end user experience is approaching hostile. WAM performs three separate functions: Application Streaming Agent, Storefront, and App Launcher. (Incidentally, WAM appears to be AWS developed, rather than a white-label version of Numecent’s Application Jukebox, which separates the installer agent from the web-based storefront.) WAM isn’t installed on any of the default desktop AIMs, so the first thing that the user has to do is install it. On startup, WAM streams down any apps that the administrator has defined as being required, and it presents the user with a list of applications that can be optionally subscribed to. The streaming process takes a couple of minutes per app on a “Value” WorkSpace with one vCPU and 2 GB memory and fully integrates the streamed app into Windows. So far so good, but then it starts to get a little confusing. Applications appear inside WAM with large, business-card sized icons complete with a friendly “Open” button that can be used to launch the app. Unfortunately, as an app launcher, WAM is a poor alternative to anything that Windows offers. The icons are too big and quickly fill the screen. It’s possible to sort them by name, vendor, and application type, but it’s not possible to manually reorder apps to put frequently used ones near the top of the list, so searching for and launching apps inevitably results in excessive scrolling. Nor is it possible to drag and drop app icons out of WAM and onto the desktop or Start menu. Actually, that’s not quite right: you can drag application icons out of WAM, but they appear on the desktop as an unusable shortcut to an HTML file. Sloppy UI design on the admin console is bad, but when it comes to user experience for end users, it’s inexcusable. Amazon could have made WAM quite painless if it had chosen to break it up into separate components, implementing the streaming agent as a service with a separate storefront app. It isn’t immediately clear why Amazon chose to add the app launcher functionality. WAM installed applications already integrate into the Start menu and Windows desktop, making it difficult to understand why anyone would choose to use it in preference to anything else. If it wasn’t for the need to allow users to choose their own apps, anyone finding themselves responsible for a WorkSpaces implementation would probably be best served by relegating WAM to the system tray and hiding its icon.

I didn’t subject WorkSpaces to any in-depth testing this time around, beyond confirming that performance was consistent with expectations for assigned resources. However, alarmingly, at one point during testing the behavior of the icons on the desktop changed, so that attempts to launch any app from its desktop shortcut opened the Icon Properties window. I was only able to resolve the problem by refreshing the virtual desktop from the admin console. I also ran into problems with the Amazon WorkSpaces Windows client. Once, after logging off the desktop, the client stopped accepting keyboard input, forcing me to cut-and-paste my credentials in to regain access. Only a reboot of my desktop PC resolved that problem. Neither problem recurred in the remainder of my testing, but given the duration of my testing, it’s not possible to determine if this is a major concern or not.

When I first reviewed Amazon WorkSpaces last year, I found it lacking when compared to other DaaS offerings, missing key features and management services. Over time, some of these shortcomings have been addressed: Amazon has recently added the ability for Mac users to use local printers and has extended the service to cover the Asia Pacific region though the Singapore data center. Amazon has also made small improvements to the administrators’ lot, allowing them to reboot or remove multiple desktops in one go, and it has provided proper installers for its Windows and OS X clients—previously, the only way to install the clients was from a web link that was emailed to the user. It has also taken the first steps toward delivering a management API, although at present it is severely limited in functionality and does not provide any support for application management. These updates and the addition of the application management service will go some way toward addressing Amazon WorkSpaces deficits, but at a time when its competitors are continuing to enhance their products, Amazon is, if anything, even further behind than it was a year ago. I’ve shared my latest feedback with Amazon, and I’m confident that it will continue to improve WorkSpaces; however, given the evident lack of attention to detail, it isn’t possible to recommend WorkSpaces in its present form. Taking into account the pace of development of competing DaaS services, unless Amazon commits significantly more resources to WorkSpaces to deliver more features and improves overall quality, it is unlikely that it will ever be able to compete against more-focused rivals.

All things considered, Amazon’s move to provide an application catalog for Windows desktop apps is more important than any shortfall that WorkSpaces may have today. Just as Amazon’s entry into the DaaS market has done more to alert customers to the opportunity than would have been possible if WorkSpaces had been launched by a startup, Amazon’s presence in the market is such that in enabling its customers to license off-the-shelf desktop apps by the month, it is waking up the software industry to the opportunity of pay-per-use desktop applications. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, the subscription services model will be imitated by every cloud desktop provider as a matter of course.

Amazon WorkSpaces Application Catalog

AP and Billing

Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Buddi Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces HomeBank Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces KMyMoney Free

Application and Web Development

IDM Computer Solutions, Inc. UEStudio $12.55/month/user
IDM Computer Solutions, Inc. UEStudio & UltraCompare Bundle $18.85/month/user
IDM Computer Solutions, Inc. UltraEdit $10.05/month/use
IDM Computer Solutions, Inc. UltraEdit & UltraCompare Bundle $12.55/month/user
Microsoft Visual Studio Premium 2012 $193.15/month/user
Microsoft Visual Studio Premium 2013 $193.15/month/user
Microsoft Visual Studio Pro 2012 $40.50/month/user
Microsoft Visual Studio Pro 2013 $40.50/month/user
Microsoft Visual Studio Ultimate 2012 $421.25/month/user
Microsoft Visual Studio Ultimate 2013 $421.25/month/user
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces BlueGriffon Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Cygwin Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Eclipse IDE Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Git Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Github Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces jEdit Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces KompoZer Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Notepad++ Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces PuTTY Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Python 2.7.8 Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Python 2.7.9 Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Python 3.4.2 Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces R Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Strawberry Perl Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces TeXnicCenter Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Tortoise SVN Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces VIM Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces WinSCP Free
Serif (Europe) Ltd WebPlus X8 $14.05/month/user

Business Intelligence

GoldMine Software GoldMine Premium Edition $23.05/month/user
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces FloreantPOS Free
Swiftpage Act! Pro v17 $22.65/month/user
Swiftpage Act! Pro v17 with Support $30.25/month/user


IMSI Design TurboCAD Pro 2015 $31.50/month/user
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces FreeCAD $34.45/month/user

GIS and Mapping

Golden Software Didger® 5 $24.50/month/user
Golden Software Grapher™ 11 $30.80/month/user
Golden Software MapViewer™ 8 $28.90/month/user
Golden Software Strater® 4 $28.25/month/use
Golden Software Surfer® 12 $53.50/month/user
Golden Software Voxler® 3 $30.15/month/user

Illustration and Design

Corel Corporation Corel® PaintShop® Pro X7 $6.50/month/user
Corel Corporation CorelDRAW® Graphics Suite X7 $42.25/month/user
Hyperionics HyperSnap $1.50/month/user
Microsoft Visio Pro 2013 $16.20/month/user
Microsoft Visio Standard 2013  $8.35/month/user
Microsoft Visio Viewer Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces GIMP Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Inkscape Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Scribus Free
Serif (Europe) Ltd DrawPlus X6 $11.25/month/user
Serif (Europe) Ltd PagePlus X8 $15.10/month/user
Serif (Europe) Ltd PhotoPlus X7 $10.05/month/user

Media and Encoding

Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces aTunes Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Audacity Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Jajuk Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces KMPlayer Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces musikCube Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces VLC Media Player Free

Productivity and Collaboration

Corel Corporation PDF Fusion $2.75/month/user
Corel Corporation WordPerfect Office X7 $13.10/month/user
Foxit Corporation Foxit PhantomPDF Business $11.40/month/user
Foxit Corporation Foxit PhantomPDF Standard $8.45/month/user
Foxit Corporation Foxit Reader Free
Kingsoft Software WPS Office for Windows (free) Free
Kingsoft Software WPS Office for Windows (professional) $3.75/month/user
LibreOffice LibreOffice-from-Collabora Amazon Edition $1.25/month/user
LULU Software Soda PDF 7 Business: The Smart and Simple Solution $7.40/month/user
LULU Software Soda PDF 7 Professional: The Smart and Simple Solution $16.25/month/user
LULU Software Soda PDF 7 Standard: The Smart and Simple Solution $12.45/month/user
Microsoft Microsoft Office 2010 Professional Plus $15.00/month/user
Microsoft Microsoft Office 2010 Standard $11.00/month/user
Microsoft Microsoft Office 2013 Professional Plus $15.00/month/user
Microsoft Microsoft Office 2013 Standard $11.00/month/user
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces AbiWord Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Calligra Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Dia Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces FreeMind Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Miranda NG Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Pidgin Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces SeaMonkey Free

Project Management

Microsoft Project Pro 2010 $32.15/month/user
Microsoft Project Pro 2013 $32.15/month/user
Microsoft Project Standard 2010 $19.30/month/user
Microsoft Project Standard 2013 $19.30/month/user

Security Storage Archiving

Bitdefender (HQ) Bitdefender Security for Amazon WorkSpaces $3.75/month/user
McAfee McAfee Endpoint Protection for AWS WorkSpaces $2.25/month/user
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Areca Backup Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces Firebird Free
Zscaler Zscaler Internet Security $3.00/month/user


Acro Software CutePDF Professional $3.10/month/user
Acro Software CutePDF Writer Free
Corel Corporation WinZip $3.75/month/user
IMSI Design Turbo View & Convert $5.00/month/user
Microsoft IE 9 Free
Microsoft IE 8 Free
Microsoft Silverlight Free
Mozilla Corporation Mozilla Firefox Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces 7-Zip Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces FileZilla Free
Open Source Titles / WorkSpaces KeePass Free
TechSmith TechSmith Snagit $6.25/month/user
ThinPrint ThinPrint Cloud Printer $1.18/month/user
X1 Discovery Inc. X1 Search 8 $3.15/month/user