Foley on Microsoft

Is All Hope for a Truly 'Universal' Windows Platform Lost?

Microsoft looks to be in a transitional mode with its Windows everywhere strategy due to its struggling mobile sales.

One Windows. The idea sounded good a few years ago when Microsoft first pitched it: A common Windows core and development environment, shared across a variety of form factors and device types. Of course developers would flock to a platform that finally delivered on the age-old promise of "write (mostly) once, run anywhere."

But with Windows Phone nearly bottoming out in market share, the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) stool is looking very wobbly. Microsoft's core premise in creating the UW was developers would likely build first for Windows for PCs, given that's where the company's market and mind share were greatest. Once they built for PCs, developers would be able to move their apps to Windows Phone devices -- and, if applicable, Xbox consoles and HoloLens mixed-reality goggles -- with relatively little work.

Even when Windows Phone and Windows Mobile looked as if they had at least some potential to gain share, a number of developers balked. It might be fairly trivial to bring apps to those platforms, but maintaining them would require commitment. Some developers opted to build UWP apps for Windows PCs only. Some decided the Web version and/or an Edge browser extension version of their apps would be their only offering for anyone still on Windows Mobile.

Microsoft added a new carrot to try to entice more developers to build for the UWP via the "bridges" it introduced more than a year ago. Then Microsoft decided to drop the Android bridge. Some believe the company dropped it because it worked too well and allowed Android apps to run on Windows 10 without moderation. Instead, Microsoft officials sought out Web-app, iOS and Win32 developers, hoping to convince them to bring their apps to the UWP using the "Westminster," "Islandwood" and "Centennial" tools. While some devs embraced the bridge approach, it doesn't appear to have resulted in a noticeable influx of UWP apps in the Windows Store, at least so far.

In my February 2015 column, wondering if the UWP strategy would succeed, I noted that some observers were skeptical that the majority of developers wanted or needed their apps to run on both PCs and phones. Some apps make sense on mobile phones and tablets but not so much on PCs (and vice versa). Assuming developers would want versions of the same app to work on PCs, gaming consoles and mixed-reality headsets is even dicier.

The component of the UWP strategy that seemed the most plausible back then was the idea that developers would be interested in bringing their Windows 10 PC apps to phones. But now that Microsoft has scaled back substantially -- ­and possibly permanently -- its plans to field its own smartphones, the UWP plan seems less convincing. The vast majority, to the tune of well more than 90 percent, of Windows Phone devices in use during its heyday were Microsoft Lumia phones. Yes, there is still a case to be made that the UWP can make apps safer and easier to purchase, download and update, but the write once/run anywhere part of the equation just isn't adding up.

Though Microsoft has written off basically its entire Nokia handset acqui­sition, the company is continuing to forge ahead with the Windows 10 Mobile OS. That signals to me that Microsoft's brass, at this point, still believes there's a market for a Windows-based phone platform. Rumors I've heard indicate if and when Microsoft takes another run at its own phone, it won't likely be in the next year-plus, and it won't be aimed at consumers but, rather, business users. Will a Surface Phone in late 2017/early 2018 arrive too late to strengthen the value proposition of the UWP? As things stand today, most will agree that's a long shot at best. Consequently, Microsoft will have a hard time convincing developers and customers that Windows 10 is truly "universal."

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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