Modern Windows Apps Are Microsoft’s Achilles' Heel
As we approach the fifth anniversary of the Windows Store, Microsoft's modern app approach has just not paid off.
Can you name the three most popular apps in the Windows Store? For that matter, can you name any apps in the Windows Store?
If you drew a blank on that impromptu quiz, you’re not alone. This year marks the fifth anniversary of the Windows Store, but Redmond doesn’t really have much to celebrate. While competing app stores from Apple and Google are now multi-billion-dollar businesses, the Windows Store is still trying to find its footing.
In theory, the so-called "modern apps" available through the Windows Store have a lot to offer: For starters, they’re sandboxed, making them far more secure than conventional desktop apps. They’re also touch-friendly and lightweight, making them ideal for use on mobile devices.
Microsoft’s first-party Store apps -- more than a dozen of which are included with a default installation of Windows 10 -- have evolved tremendously over the past five years. The Mail & Calendar app in Windows 10, for example, has gone from cringe-worthy to impressive and is now in nearly perfect sync with its counterparts on other platforms. Likewise, the Groove Music and Maps apps are full-featured and fun to use, at least for those who discover them.
The trouble is, third parties haven’t been nearly as eager to build modern apps for Windows. That indifference starts with the biggest names of all: Google and Apple. If you want to use any of Google’s services -- Gmail, Google Maps or Google Drive, for example -- you’ll need to open a browser, because Google has no official apps in the Windows Store. The same is true for Apple, which also has chosen to ignore the Windows Store. Apple’s 800-pound gorilla, iTunes, is a traditional Win32 desktop app, period.
But wait, it gets worse. Amazon built a rudimentary Kindle app for the launch of Windows 8, and then pretty much abandoned it. To add injury to insult, Amazon pulled the app from the Windows Store in October 2016 rather than updating it for Windows 10.
Even Microsoft’s flagship productivity package, Office, gets only token representation in the Windows Store, where Word, Excel and PowerPoint are branded as Mobile apps. Microsoft has made it clear that the Office desktop apps are the first-class citizens for Windows.
The common thread is the same: Why build a modern app that runs on a subset of Windows PCs when you can build a desktop app that runs on those new devices and on the still much larger population of good old Windows 7 PCs?
There’s really no good answer to that question, which exposes the uncomfortable reality that Windows has failed to evolve as a mobile OS. Developers go where the money is, and for the past five years that’s been iOS, with Android a strong second.
Microsoft’s mobile failure hasn’t been for lack of trying. The Surface RT, which debuted in 2012, was filled with good ideas but poor on execution. The Apple iPad had a two-year head start and continued pulling away. On paper, at least, Windows Phone had a decent chance to carve out a respectable niche, but it couldn’t get any traction, either. Satya Nadella no doubt made the right business decision to get Microsoft out of the phone business, but that failure wasn’t without consequences.
It doesn’t help that Microsoft has pivoted its mobile platform more often than the New England Patriots backfield. Just ask a longtime Microsoft developer about Silverlight. And be prepared to duck.
The latest pivot is the Desktop to Universal Windows Platform (UWP) Bridge, which allows developers to package their old Win32 binaries as a UWP app and deliver them through the Store, with the option to modernize the app’s interface in the process. The hope, of course, is that this is just a bridge, a brief stop for developers as they drag those old desktop apps into the new world. But recent history says those developers don’t have much incentive to do all that extra work when they could be building mobile apps on a newer, more profitable platform.
Ed Bott is a Microsoft MVP and an award-winning tech journalist who has covered Microsoft for 25 years. He's written numerous books on Windows and Office, including the best-selling "Inside Out" series from Microsoft Press. Bott delivers outspoken advice on a wide range of technology topics at his ZDNet blog, "The Ed Bott Report."