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Microsoft’s app strategy is finally heading in the right direction

Microsoft’s app strategy has been picking up steam recently. The latest development came at Facebook’s F8 conference, which was held this week, and will allow developers to build apps for Windows with greater ease.

Up until last week, the strategy could have been described as a shambles and had created problems for Microsoft right across the board. The biggest one, or at least the one that has gotten the most attention, was Windows Phone — now Windows 10 Mobile — which struggled to get popular apps, like Snapchat, onto the platform.

Versions of Windows Phone barely had any popular apps, like Instagram, which lead to a community that regularly had to rely on third-party alternatives, which were usually developed on a shoe-string budget. These apps, while good, would often get shut down or the developer would run out of money.

It’s unfair to say that Windows Phone failed entirely because of this problem, but it was definitely a contributory factor. People tried all three operating systems — Windows, iOS, and Android — but found that only two had the apps they wanted (or needed, in some cases).

The app problem lead to a sales problem which, in turn, lead to the problem of fewer apps. No developer, especially an indie developer, was going to spend time making an app for a platform that had, at times, less than 2% global marketshare and, thanks to low-end phones, users that were less likely to spend money than iOS.

Microsoft evidently thought long and hard about this problem and came up with a solution: One app for all platforms. These platforms include PC, Xbox (which, naturally, brings in big-name games), Internet of Things devices, and phones. Now, developers have a different choice: Instead of having to build a separate app for Windows phones, they just build one for Windows 10.

This was, and still is, a big boost for Microsoft’s phones and offers something that no other platform can offer developers. While Apple has been working on building phone features into the desktop — things like Launchpad, for example — it has never presented a unified app strategy, much to the annoyance of developers.

Google, too, has never worked that hard at letting Android apps work on Chrome OS and, besides, the operating system has never been as popular as Windows (or OS X), except in schools, which mainly rely on the browser or a word processor.

Microsoft had, in one move, created a unique selling point for its platform, which it calls the Universal Windows Platform, and has been rolling with it ever since.

However, it’s still unclear if the strategy will work, but there are signs that it could be. The latest one, as I said, coming from Facebook.

Essentially, what Facebook has done is expand its set of tools, which it calls React Native, to Windows 10. This means that over 250,000 developers will now be able to easily port apps to Windows 10 which, thanks to the Universal Windows Platform, means that PCs, the Xbox, Windows phones, and even your IoT-powered fridge can benefit from them.

This coincides with a big push from other developers, like Uber, into the Windows world. While there are few people who would choose Windows because of Uber, it does demonstrate the advantage that a universal platform brings Microsoft. The app works on your desktop, which is perfect for ordering a taxi from your home, just as well as it works from a phone.

As I have argued before, Microsoft’s best chance of making something out of Windows 10 Mobile, and its assorted devices, would be to focus on its enterprise customers, pitching it as a cheaper (and easier) alternative to managing iPhones and Android phones from a system administrators point of view.

Thanks to UWP, Microsoft can get all of the apps it needs — boosted, in part, by the high adoption rate of Windows 10 — and then pitch phone customers off the back of that.

This strategy is very long tail — businesses tend to adopt technologies at a far slower pace than consumers — but it may eventually be a big bonus for Windows, and Microsoft, as developers start building apps for the platform.

The support for Facebook, which was initially sceptical about Windows, is an especially big deal. According to an analysis of user’s habits, people initially download many apps but then only use about five regularly and one of those is Facebook. (Others, like Snapchat, are not available on Windows phones.)

The developers behind The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, Netflix, Shazam, and more, are all bringing apps out on Windows 10, which are then available on Windows phones, and can be used to attract users.

Beyond this, Microsoft has also been working on making apps that are currently available on iOS and Android available on Windows. Xamarin, the company Microsoft bought earlier this year, offers developers the ability to build cross-platform apps and the company announced at Build that its software is now open source.

The “bridge” projects have also been moving forward — except the Android version — and could lead to more developers bringing iPhone-ready apps to Windows, although it’s not yet clear how successful this plan will be.

All in all, it seems like one of Microsoft’s biggest problems — a lack of apps on Windows, across all device classes — may be slowly coming to an end. The excitement around Windows 10, which now has almost 300 million users, is palpable and Microsoft has never been in a better position, both strategically and directionally, to realise its objectives.

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Do you agree or disagree? What app or apps do you wish were on Windows?