“Windows has gone way beyond the PC. It’s one core, one store, one platform,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told Fortune magazine in an interview last week.
It’s the most concise way to describe what’s been going on at the company as we get ever-closer to the release of Windows 10 this summer.
This new Microsoft doesn’t care where you run Windows. Your PC? Your phone? Your phone that you’re using as your PC? HoloLens, Microsoft’s crazy-cool new holographic computer? They all run Windows 10 apps.
So that’s “one core” and “one platform,” and it’s pretty straightforward. Write an app once, it works everywhere, on all one billion Windows 10 devices that Microsoft is hoping for. Easy-peasy.
That market size is Microsoft’s trump card as it looks to pull developers away from building iPhone and Android apps.
That’s where “one store” comes in. It’s the only way Windows 10 is going to succeed in its wild ambitions to be everything to everybody.
But as it stands today, the store is Microsoft’s weakest point.
The idea of an App Store is a huge leap over what we had before. In the old days, finding a program to download, downloading it, and installing it took lots of steps and was not always easy for non-technical people. The pain was only be exacerbated by trying to update the or add more content to it once it was downloaded. Programs would need other, seemingly unrelated, programs just to run.
The rise of app stores for mobile devices — first Apple’s App Store, and later Google Play and other stores for Android devices — changed all that.
Find an app you like, click it, and it installs. If you need an update, it handles that too. If you get a new phone, just log in and all of your apps are right there, waiting to be reinstalled. The actual installation is handled in a way that’s totally invisible to the user, as are updates. And developers can get paid, simply and easily, even if the store itself usually takes a sizable cut.
Microsoft has an app store, too, for Windows Phone. But as it stands today, there just aren’t a lot of good apps.
The apps that are on this store tend to be pale imitations of the ones that users enjoy on iPhone and Android, especially since Google offers none of its apps through the Windows Store. At one point, Microsoft was straight up offering cash bounties just to bring apps — any apps — to Windows Phone.
It creates a vicious cycle. Customers don’t want to switch to Windows Phone because there aren’t a lot of good apps. But there aren’t a lot of good apps because developers don’t want to waste their time working on a platform
It’s resulted in Windows Phone becoming a teeny-tiny player compared to the behemoths of Apple, Samsung, Motorola, and the like. Users want to go where the apps are.
Meanwhile, Windows 8 has an app store, as well. But it’s totally separate from the Windows Phone store. For a user, it means potentially buying the same app twice for two devices. For a developer, it means having to make two entirely different versions of an app. That won’t fly in the every-single-device world that Microsoft is envisioning.
Windows 10 is Microsoft’s big chance to break the cycle. One Windows Store that lets you install apps across all of the billion-plus Windows 10 devices is a tremendous opportunity to make up lost ground.
Even Apple hasn’t been able to make a desktop app store work — the Mac App Store seems to be heading towards becoming a famous flop, with developers pushing back against Apple’s control and the fact that they just can’t seem to make any money. That’s not least because, again, it’s a totally separate app store from Apple’s wildly successful mobile marketplace.
It’s why Microsoft is investing so, so much effort into making it easy to bring existing Android, iOS, and even older-school Windows apps into the new, improved Windows Store — it means that developers have to expend less effort than ever before to (ideally) start making a lot of money very quickly, with a tremendous potential marketplace.
And for Windows users, there a bunch of benefits, beyond just having access to more apps. With an improved Windows Store on the backend, Microsoft is building the machinery to fix a lot of the traditional Windows headaches.
By packing up software as an app, it makes it a lot less messy on the backend, as The Register reports. Which is a fancy way of saying that installing an app is way less likely to crash or destabilize your Windows PC than it used to be.
But all of that only works if you get your apps through the Windows Store. Otherwise, it’s business as usual — a gaggle of hard-to-install software with no standards, no guarantee it will be touch-compatible, hard-to-update, and from disparate sources.
And a lot of the early so-called Universal Apps from the Windows Store are obviously designed to be used on a touchscreen or tablet, and become a little awkward when you try to use them with a mouse and keyboard. This is obviously the kinds of growing pains that come with a new platform, just like we see in the earliest Apple Watch apps.
In the short term, though, “Universal Apps” that don’t work very well are just another thing that’s going to confuse people away from using the Windows Store.
It’s not totally catastrophic: You can still download and install software from anywhere. I’ve been playing around with the Windows 10 preview edition, and when I saw there wasn’t an official Slack app on the store (yet), I downloaded and installed it the old-fashioned way. It works! It’s not touch-optimised or anything like that, but at least it works.
But if too many developers avoid the Windows Store and just build software like they always have, you’re going to end up with a lot of software that’s not guaranteed to work on every Windows device. After all, it’s easy and familiar and they don’t have to give Microsoft a cut if they sell it themselves.
If that happens, Microsoft’s ambitions of Windows 10 being everywhere and powering everything are going to come crashing to a fault. And it’s starting from a position of weakness.