Why apps are key to the success of Windows 10

It’s no secret that Microsoft has an app problem. The Windows Store is full of unexciting knock-offs, and it’s rare for quality releases to appear there these days.

While many Windows Phone devotees will claim the "app gap" is a myth, and the only apps Microsoft’s mobile platform doesn’t have are rubbish ones that no one wants ("thousands of games and flashlight apps" as I’ve seen iOS’s superiority dismissed previously), that’s simply not true.

Microsoft is more than aware of the problem, and past efforts to get developers to port their apps to its ecosystem simply haven’t worked. That’s why with Windows 10 Microsoft is doing things differently. Universal apps can run on any Windows 10 device, from PCs to phones, and Microsoft has also made it incredibly simple for developers to port Android and iOS apps to Windows 10. But will that be enough?

When, at Build, Microsoft said it expects over 1 billion Windows 10 devices to be in consumers’ hands within 2-3 years, it was sending a clear message to developers - this is a platform that will be too big to ignore. But that doesn’t mean developers won’t ignore it.

Let’s be honest, while a billion devices sounds good, it’s just a number Microsoft has plucked out of thin air because it’s huge and could potentially happen. But it’s important to understand that just because Microsoft is talking about a potential billion Windows 10 devices that can run apps, it doesn’t mean an app has a potential audience of a billion+ users.

Windows phones and tablets currently command a very small user base compared to iOS and Android devices. While PC sales have dwindled a lot over the years, that’s still the area where Windows dominates. However, Windows 8.x has a tiny user share there, and of those people who run the tiled OS, how many of those regularly install and run apps? I’m a Windows 8.1 user, and I very rarely go into the store. Why should I when I can run regular programs (sorry, Microsoft I’m not calling them legacy apps, ever) on the desktop?

When Windows 10 comes out, there will be even less need for PC owners to run apps because the desktop, with a Start menu, is where the action takes place. In the PC version of Windows 10, the line between apps and programs blurs. You run them from the Start menu, and they can open full screen or windowed, so what’s the difference, really? Well, actually, quite a lot.

Many of the current universal apps run great on touch screen devices, but not quite so well on keyboard and mouse systems. Universal apps can run on a range of devices, but that doesn’t mean they will ever run as well as a dedicated desktop program on a PC.

Developers making apps for Android and/or iOS can port their apps to run on Windows 10 with minimal effort, but who are they appealing to? Windows phone and tablet users, really. If that’s a big enough audience, then it’s definitely worth doing. If the audience doesn’t grow way beyond what it currently is at the moment, then that may not be enough to tempt developers to bother, not until the user base is sizable enough.

It is mobile app developers Microsoft is primarily courting with Windows 10, but what about regular PC programmers? Will they switch from writing desktop software as they always have, to crafting universal apps? Where’s the real incentive for them to do things differently?

Microsoft has made it relatively straightforward to turn Win32 programs and even websites into apps, and there are clear benefits for users. Apps are easy to uninstall, and Windows handles the updates, so there’s no checking for new versions in programs or on websites. But this idea requires developers to package their programs into apps, which they may or may not choose to do.

They may also not want to share a large chunk of revenue from paid apps (30 per cent) with Microsoft in order to be included in the store. Writing apps from scratch still remains slightly unappealing as the vast number of Windows users are on Windows 7, and that’s an audience that no sane developer can afford to ignore. By offering Windows 10 for free in the first year, the tech giant is hoping to get Windows 7 and 8 users to make the switch, but a sizable number won’t. Windows XP is still way more popular than Windows 8.x, which goes to show just how resistant to change people can be.

Key to Microsoft’s plan is the Windows Store. It’s here everyone running a Windows 10 device will be able to find and download free and paid apps. The Windows Store in Windows 8.x has always been a total mess. Microsoft needs to get the store right in Windows 10, and it also needs to get PC owners using the store.

Microsoft has done all it can to make Windows 10 appealing - it’s (mostly) corrected the faults of Windows 8.x, priced the OS at free (initially, at least), taken steps to address the app gap issue, united a bunch of disparate devices under one OS, and created a one-stop shop for apps. But yet there’s still every possibility that PC users won’t upgrade, or will avoid the store because they want freedom to choose programs not written with mobile phones in mind, and developers will avoid Windows 10 because there’s still not a sizable enough market to care about.

They’ll wait and see, as they did with Windows 8, with potentially disastrous consequences for the OS. This isn't just my view. Reuters approached more than a dozen developers and found just one planning to port an app from iOS or Android - King.com. And that's the company whose Candy Crush Saga game is going to be bundled with Windows 10, so it has a vested interest. Eight of the developers Reuters spoke to had no plans to make Windows 10 apps at all.

To become a proper player in the mobile space, with a large enough share to be taken seriously, Microsoft needs the Windows Store to be a major success.

The software giant has an app problem, and that problem is without enough really big name apps in the store, its grand plan of putting Windows 10 on a range of devices could end up with it simply pushing hardware no one wants.

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