Universal Windows Apps: A health check

DevToolsGuy / Thursday, February 11, 2016

Last year, we wrote about Microsoft’s new Windows Universal Apps (WUA). WUAs are Microsoft’s recognition that their separate and non-compatible app stores for the Windows 8 PC and Windows Phone weren’t doing a lot to attract developers or customers. UWAs work on any device running Windows 10 and mean that, with a little configuration, developers can buy apps one time and know they’ll work on devices of any size, shape or input method.

Windows 10 was released last summer and is currently running on more than 110 million devices. Over four months into its release, is Microsoft’s new approach to apps paying off?

Why the need for UWAs?

Windows 8 and 8.1 are generally regarded as one of Microsoft’s worst moves of recent years. The so-called ‘metro’ design was almost universally unpopular (certainly with corporate users) and turned a lot of people off the OS. In comparison to Google Play and the Apple App Store, apps built for Windows 8 and Windows phone were few and far between.

As a result of these two failings, both the Windows mobile and PC app stores weren’t going anywhere. Microsoft were dealing with a ‘catch 22’ situation. Customers weren’t interested in the app store because there weren’t many apps. Developers didn’t want to build apps because there weren’t many customers. And so UWAs are Microsoft’s answer. The aim is to help developers build apps in one go, written in whatever programming language they like, and have these work more or less perfectly on desktops, laptops, smartphones, tablets, Xboxes and the HoloLens.

The gamble is that by making it easier to build apps for any device, developers will be tempted back to Windows. So is the gamble paying off?

Do you want the good news or the bad news?

On first impressions, UWAs have been something of a hit. A lot of major apps are now available in the store for multiple devices, including:

  • Adobe Photoshop Express
  • Dropbox
  • Netflix
  • Twitter (and soon Facebook and Instagram) – will bring some of the world’s largest social networks to Windows
  • Shazam

Many of these apps are household names, with millions (if not billions) of users worldwide. Letting their users download their apps direct to their device will certainly help the Windows Store grow and attract new custom.

Business Insider has reported impressive figures for visits to the Windows 10 app store; in the weeks following the app store’s release, Microsoft reported over 1.25 billion visits in just ten weeks. Equally, developer revenue had increased by a factor of four over that same period.

There’s always a ‘but’…

While there’s a lot of potential with Windows 10’s approach to apps, there is still a lot of uncertainty around the future and the relevance of what Microsoft is trying to do. Let’s have a look at some of the doubts out there:

 1. The Verge has reported on a number of major companies not updating or even canning their apps for Windows Phone, including Mint, American Airlines, Bank of America and Pinterest.  Even Microsoft haven’t kept apps for the Office Suite as well updated on Windows Phone as they do on iOS and Android. It’s hardly encouraging.

 2. It’s not really universal. Microsoft has come under criticism for describing UWAs as ‘universal’ because, well, they only run on Windows devices. If you actually want to build an app that runs on Windows, iOS and Android, you really need a platform like Xamarin.

 3. If your customers are only going to use your app on one device, there’s no real motivation to build a new universal app. Say you have an app that’s designed for desktop gaming that you’d already built for Windows 7. Windows 10 is backwards compatible so your app will continue to work on the new OS. So, unless you really want to expand your reach to mobile, there’s not much motivation to build for the new app store.

4. Will popular mobile app developers bother with Windows 10 anyway? Say you work for Snapchat. Your app was designed purely for mobile users and you already have many millions of customer on iOS and Android. Would you be motivated to build a Windows 10 app for the tiny number of potential Windows phone customers? The fact that your app will work on the desktop or Xbox is hardly relevant if your app is all about mobile.

 5. Microsoft wrote off its Nokia acquisitions this summer. This indicates a de-emphasis on mobile from Microsoft, and will make developers more cautious about building an app for Windows Phone when the future is unclear.

So, what has our health check of UWAs shown? To be honest, it’s probably too soon to tell. Windows 10 was released less than six months ago (at the time of writing), so predictions of its success or failure are probably a little premature. We’ll be following the future of UWAs closely however, so keep checking back for more in the coming months.

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