Why Microsoft May Actually Have It Right With Windows Apps

Throughout the lifecycle of the product we call Windows, the programs or applications we run on them gone through far more naming conventions.  When I started with Windows 3 back-in-the-day, we call them programs and really, up until Windows 7 that name pretty much stuck.  You would occasionally see “Application” but generally we call them “Programs”.  Enter in the iPhone, the App Store, the Google Play Store and yes, even the Windows Phone store and we have shrunk it all down to “Apps”.  But with Windows 8, we decided to throw in some confusion for the fun of it.  We have Modern Apps which run on the Start Screen in Windows 8.  Then we have the Desktop Apps which run in the desktop environment.  Don’t forget that we have Windows Phone apps because those are different than Windows apps – Modern or Desktop.  It seems that in Windowsland, App can mean a lot of different things.

Which is why I think Microsoft has hit it squarely by settling on Windows Apps for Windows 10.  It conveys the message that they have been promoting: One Windows for all devices.  But it does much more than that.  It avoids the confusion of what has become Universal apps today which to be honest, really aren’t that universal and clarifies to the consumer that this app works on everything simply because of its name.  While the verdict is still out on how successful Windows 10 will be, I think one of the master strokes for Redmond may be in this simple but powerful name for applications.

One of the key messages with Windows 10 has been around this concept of Universal apps.  Microsoft mentioned this early in the life of Windows 10 but more recently has laid out the foundations for developers of how to create such apps and has even released a SDK for it.  It paints the picture that developers can create an application and through a few changes, use that same core code on any device running Windows.  Gone are the territorial borders of “Windows Phone App” and “Windows Desktop App”.  The truth is, if done right, the picture painted is accurate.

Microsoft is promoting that Windows 10 is simply Windows.  No matter what device you run it on – a phone, a PC, a tablet or even your Xbox – it is the same Windows running on all of them.  At first when I heard this I simply put this down to marketing spin.  But over the course of 2015 it is clear to me that this is not spin.  This is fact.  Microsoft is developing Windows 10 to be truly universal and they are encouraging their developer community big and small to do the same.  This approach means that delineated names like Windows Phone App is made redundant.  There is no need to distinguish what devices an app will run on.  It will run on all of them at the core level.  It is simply up to the developer to make sure the app makes the right UI adjustments for different devices (which are well defined). The app becomes simply an app that runs on Windows.  If you need one more proof point it is the consolidation of what we know today as the Windows Phone Store and the Windows Store.  In Windows 10 this will be one place for all apps.

We, however, as consumers have been trained over the past couple of years by Microsoft and by Apple to accept the term Universal.  Apple defines a Universal app that will run on both an iPhone and an iPad in iOS while Microsoft has defined it as an app for Windows Phone and Windows PC from a licensing perspective.  Today, if I go to the Windows Phone store I will see plenty of apps that tell me that they run on Windows Phone and Windows PC.  What that means is that when I make a purchase of an app for Windows Phone, I have a universal license to get the desktop version of the app for no additional cost.  So for example, take my favorite RSS reader app NextGen Reader.  I pay $2.99 in either the Windows App Store or the Windows Phone App Store and I can get the counterpart version for no additional cost.  In this way Microsoft mimics Apple in that you pay for it once and have it on both devices.

The tricky bit however is for the developer.  Unlike what Microsoft is proposing in Windows 10 and Universal apps, there isn’t a lot that is universal about these apps.  Sure there is some code that the developers can reuse but an awful lot of it has to be recoded and then there are the translation issues of code between the platforms.  Its a bit of a nightmare and personally one of the reasons why I think we have not seen near the level of development for Windows Phone.  Simply put, its too difficult and time consuming.

So why not then just call the Universal Apps?  The name it somewhat tainted to be honest.  It’s kind of like Windows Mobile.  Those of us who were around back when it was called Windows Mobile shudder at the idea of that name returning.  It is tainted and brings back a lot of bad memories (and experiences).

To me then the name Windows App solves both the issue of device specific naming conventions but also differentiates from what we think of Universal Apps today.  It conveys the simple truth that Windows 10 is same no matter what device it runs on and developers can build apps ones to run on all of them.  It is simply Windows.

One last point on Universal apps that shouldn’t go undiscussed.  Remember back to what I said about Apple’s definition of Universal apps – those that can run on an iPhone and an iPad.  Microsoft needs to make sure they are clear and out maneuver Apple.  Microsoft’s Windows Apps are truly universal across all devices, not just mobile devices and tablets.  This is a big distinction and one I hope they take advantage of throughout this year and next.

What do you think of the name Windows App?

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