Foley on Microsoft

Will the New Microsoft Universal Apps Strategy Succeed?

On paper, the idea of enabling developers to (mostly) write their apps once and have them run on any Widows 10 variant sounds like a winner. Microsoft needs more apps and more developer loyalty for its Windows platforms, especially those running on mobile devices. By making the underlying Windows Runtime, Windows Store, Windows APIs and tooling more common across the many Windows flavors, Microsoft is making the idea of building more Windows apps a lot more appealing, so the argument goes.

But there are a lot of unknowns about Universal Apps -- at least some of which Microsoft hopefully will address at next month's Build 2015 conference -- that still have many of us questioning whether this approach really will help lessen the metro-style/modern app gap that's plaguing the Windows and Windows Phone OSes.

First, there's the issue as to whether developers really will find the latest iteration of the "write once, run on any Windows" promise any more useful and believable than the previous iterations. Microsoft execs have been saying for a while that developers should be able to reuse the bulk of their Windows code across Windows and Windows Phone, with fairly limited UI tweaks needed. But many developers claim the API and tooling differences have still meant a lot less of their code has been reusable than they had been led to believe.

Microsoft also still hasn't made a compelling case as to why developers should write Universal Apps. Sure, if developers want their apps to run across different Windows flavors, they should, because a number of Windows 10 SKUs won't include a desktop environment, or be required to run Win32 apps. But if a developer is targeting large screens, such as Surface Hub, Perceptive Pixel or TVs connected to Xbox, will that developer care about the cross-Windows pitch?

Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson recently raised a related point regarding a potential flaw in the Universal Apps logic. Dawson noted the apps that Microsoft needs on Windows Phone don't exist as desktop apps on Windows.

Even if Microsoft does everything right, there will still be a group of developers who care only about writing mobile-first/mobile-only apps, and won't be interested at all in moving those apps to Windows PCs, embedded Windows devices or Xboxes, no matter how easy it is to do.

The announcement that Windows 10 will be a free upgrade for consumers and small business users currently running Windows 7, Windows 8 or Windows 8.1 for the first year that Windows 10 is available may help attract more to the Windows 10 platform. But given that many midsize and larger businesses only made the move to Windows 7 fairly recently, the expected upgrade trajectory for Windows 10 is still murky.

Microsoft does have a Plan B if its Universal Apps strategy doesn't take hold. The Operating Systems Group is continuing to work on enabling Android apps to run on Windows and Windows Phone, most likely through some kind of emulation technology, from what sources have said. If and when Microsoft management decides to take this technology commercial, many devs will no doubt wonder why they should continue to build for Windows or Windows Phone rather than Android.

The new Microsoft is platform-­agnostic, almost to a fault. While the Windows team is seeking ways to show developers how they can make money writing cross-Windows platform apps, the Developer Division is pushing ahead with various strategies to enable C# and .NET developers to write versions of their apps that can work on Android and iOS. Microsoft has been a big backer of Xamarin, Cordova, PhoneGap and, more recently, JUniversal -- all technologies that are designed for developing true "universal" apps that run on non-­Windows OSes, too.

I don't think it's a slam dunk that Universal Apps will help close Microsoft's current mobile app gap. Far from it. But that strategy remains Microsoft's Hail-Mary hope with Windows 10, at this point.

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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