A lot of digital ink has been spilt over the life status of various Microsoft products over the years. Is the Windows Phone dead? Or is it alive? Is Microsoft Band dead, or is it alive? Is the Microsoft Store dead? Or is it alive? The past few weeks we’ve seen a new target – the Universal Windows Platform.
For those uninformed, Microsoft has been pushing what it called Universal Windows apps since Windows 8. Developers were sold the promise that they would write an app once, and the user would run it on Windows tablets, Windows PCs and Windows Phones. Over the years, Microsoft would iterate and refine the Universal Windows Platform until it became really easy for developers to create cross-platform apps in Windows 10 — and then it all fell apart.
First of all, as you know Windows Phones didn’t quite take off as much as Microsoft expected. A mix of poor hardware, slow software iteration and buggy/no apps ended up suffocating a once-promising platform, and Microsoft is pulling the plug this year. For Windows tablets, they didn’t take off either. Microsoft’s OEMs once offered small tablets, but the only flavour of Windows tablets you’ll see now are only part-time tablets. These are devices intended to be used as laptops, but with some tablet trappings. The Windows OS itself drastically rolled back any accommodation Microsoft had made to the tablet form-factor, and the currently existing tablet mode is more or less vestigial.
In other words, the UWP platform lost most of its potential userbase really quickly in a matter of years.
Now, while UWP apps remained present and useful on Windows 10 laptops and desktops, they faced their own issue.
The issue is threefold.
- No one is building apps for Windows of any stripe: Quick, tell me about the last original cool app for Windows you’ve heard about, there are barely any. Don’t take my word for it, look at the Digital Trends app list for Windows and discover time travel back to 2011, and then check out the same apps for macOS.
- No one is building relevant new UWP apps: In a valiant effort to prove Windows app development isn’t dead, a group of UWP developers announced; an update to an older YouTube app, yet another Windows Reddit app, and two more Spotify clients. Be still my heart. Now, I’ve given all these apps a try, and they are well designed and work well. If you love UWP apps, you’ll probably love them. The problem is that this is exactly where the platform was half a decade ago in 2014. Arguably it is even worse, once upon a time, apps like Fhotoroom and Foundbite could be found on Windows, today only pale imitations of services that already exist elsewhere are not only the norm but the best of the platform. Let’s grant that social media apps may not be the best kind of apps for the Windows desktop and laptop, where are all the beautifully designed task manager and email apps? Or note-taking apps? Or calendar apps? You can find those on rival platforms, but you won’t find them in the Store.
- Microsoft has moved away from UWP: With the exception of OneNote, Microsoft has halted the development of previous Office apps for the UWP. The firm has also stopped building its Xbox app in UWP, preferring to develop it in Electron. Finally, the Edge browser has been migrated to a Chromium fork, with UWP being referred to as one of the ‘headwinds’ that hindered development. Nothing says a vote of confidence like not using the new tools that were once touted as the future.
Three years ago, I argued:
If Microsoft […] backtracks on its plans to improve the universal app platform in any way for any short term benefits, this will be bad for Windows as a whole.[…] It would be tantamount to saying “We can’t get developers to build for Windows anymore”. Sure people are using apps built for Windows in enterprise but all the cool new apps are for iOS, Android, the web and even OSX only with very few being for Windows 10.
A platform that can’t attract excited new developers to itself is either dead or dying. Legacy apps won’t be useful forever, and 7 million apps of which only less than a hundred are still relevant today isn’t something to be proud of.
That statement is truer than ever today. While one could make an argument that UWP isn’t dead, the fact remains that it never caught on. It is being rejiggered into what works for current developers as bits and pieces that can power their Win32 apps. An argument can be made that UWP still survives in the new Windows Apps, its a trick of language. What people meant when they say UWP is dead, is that the original mobile Windows apps vision is for all intents and purposes gone.
You can argue that Microsoft will bring it once again front and centre to “HoloLens 2, Surface Hub 2, Windows on ARM, IoT, and Windows Lite” as Windows Central’s Daniel Rubino does, and they may very well do so. And that would be lovely. However, you could fill several books with all the things Microsoft planned for its Windows apps platform that haven’t borne out just yet. What is more important is how developers respond to the platform. It may
return climb to relevance in an unforeseen surge, but as developers didn’t pick it before why would they so now?