One of Satya Nadella’s biggest initiatives is also his riskiest: The Universal Windows Platform, or UWP, a new way for Microsoft developers to build and sell their Windows apps across a huge range of devices.
We heard a lot about the UWP at this week’s Game Developers’ Conference in San Francisco, and we’ll hear about it again later this month when Microsoft holds its Build conference for developers.
But what is it?
Write once, run on any version of Windows
The basic idea behind UWP is simple. Developers just have to write an app once, and it will run on any Windows 10 device, now or in the future — from PCs and tablets to smartphones and, soon, the HoloLens and the Xbox One video game console.
If it works, it will change the way that software is built, even as tablets, phones, and PCs all blur in to one.
But not everybody loves Universal Windows Platform: Former CEO Steve Ballmer has said, simply, “that won’t work,” while the very influential game developer Tim Sweeney called it “the most aggressive move Microsoft has ever made.” And apart from some big names like Facebook and Uber, developers haven’t really signed on with UWP.
Here’s why Microsoft is so committed to the Universal Windows Platform — and why it’s going to be an uphill battle all the way.
Why does Microsoft want a new kind of app?
Windows is still the most popular operating system for PCs.
But thanks to the smartphone revolution, Android is the most popular operating system in the world overall. And Apple has a billion iOS devices in use around the world. That’s why developers tend to write applications for those platforms first.
Microsoft has its own Windows phone business, sure, but it’s spent the last few years trapped in a vicious cycle: Not enough people own a Windows phone, so developers don’t bother bringing their apps to the platform. And because developers aren’t bringing their apps to the Windows phone, people aren’t buying them.
Meanwhile, Apple and Google are mounting up new tablets that take their app superiority and turn it into something that’s just as usable as a PC, but with the familiar mobile apps and interfaces people already know and love.
Devices like the Apple iPad Pro or Google Pixel C are not as versatile or useful as a proper laptop (or Microsoft’s own Surface Pro 4) yet, but it’s only a matter of time.
Microsoft’s smartphone weakness and the subsequent lack of apps is turning in to a real liability, as its rivals smell blood in the water.
Why would developers sign on with this?
Nadella’s Microsoft hit upon a solution with Windows 10. Under UWP, developers could build one app, once, and hit every single other Windows 10 device out there without putting in much extra work.
While older Microsoft development technologies are still familiar to millions, they don’t really take into account the touch screens used on a lot of modern devices. UWP makes it relatively easy to optimise apps for smartphone and tablet touch screens, as well as for the traditional PC.
If Microsoft can convince developers to build their Windows 10 PC and tablet apps with UWP, those same apps could run on the Xbox One, as well as Windows 10 Mobile smartphones, with minimal extra work. And when the HoloLens comes out, those UWP apps will run there, too.
Every new device is a new opportunity for developers to sell their software.
“The powerful concept of Windows and Windows 10 is that it is one application platform, one store for developers, that then should attract developers to build once and have them run across all the Windows,” Nadella has said.
And with more users on Windows 10, the bigger the audience will get, and the more apps will hit the platform, turning tje vicious cycle into a virtuous one.
At least that’s the dream.
For mobile app developers, there’s one very simple problem: If their apps are only valuable on the smartphone anyway, and nobody owns a Windows phone smartphone, then why bother with a universal app?
One great example is Here Maps, which earlier this week announced that it simply wasn’t worth the time and effort to build a new Windows 10 Mobile app, and decided to abandon the Windows phone altogether. It’s not like anybody would seriously want to use their app on an Xbox One or HoloLens, after all.
That’s why critics like former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer are urging Microsoft to just throw in the towel and make an operating system that supports Android apps, instead.
For old-school Windows developers, the issue is a little more philisophical. Developers like Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney are concerned that Universal Windows Platform apps give Microsoft too much control over Windows software.
Unlike Apple’s or Google’s App Store, Microsoft has never really policed what you can or can’t do with software on Windows. You can sell legacy Windows software any way you want, from any store you want.
“With its new Universal Windows Platform (UWP) initiative, Microsoft has built a closed platform-within-a-platform into Windows 10, as the first apparent step towards locking down the consumer PC ecosystem and monopolizing app distribution and commerce,” Sweeney writes.
Sweeney’s main concern is that, at least for now, you can only get UWP apps from Windows 10’s Windows Store app market. And since the Windows Store takes a 30% of all transactions, writing a UWP app is moving from the relatively open state of Windows development today towards something a little more closed — and paying Microsoft for the privilege, Sweeney says.
Microsoft, for its part, says that UWP is intended to be a more open standard, and promises to share lots more details on that front at its Microsoft Build event later in March.
Regardless, Microsoft is pushing hard on UWP with games like “Rise of the Tomb Raider,” “Gears of War Ultimate Edition,” and the forthcoming “Quantum Break” all released Universal Windows Platform apps. The only question is whether or not Microsoft can attract enough developers to Windows 10 before Apple and Google run them off the road. or r
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