Windows Store app growth stalls

Downloads up 39% since June, but that's less than half Windows 8's OS share gain

Developer interest in Windows 8 apps waned from August through October, slowing the growth of Microsoft's Windows Store total app tally.

App counts recorded by MetroStore Scanner showed that after five months of double-digit growth in the Windows Store's app count, gains decelerated in August, September and October to single digits, ranging from 3% to just under 5%.

In June, for example, developers added more than 19,000 new apps to the Windows Store. The number fell to about 12,000 in July but plunged to 5,400 in August and fell further in September, to 5,100 new apps.

The Windows Store gained 7,300 new apps in October.

Sameer Singh, an analyst who covers mobile technology at Tech-Thoughts, thought he knew the reason for the slump in the app count growth.

"Most Windows 8 devices are bought as PCs, not tablets," said Singh in a Monday post to his website. "Slapping a tablet interface or a touchscreen onto a PC doesn't address this problem. Most users would spend very limited time in the Metro interface and switch back to [the] desktop for the jobs they needed the PC to accomplish."

Developers may be sitting on new apps, waiting to publish them closer to the holiday sales season -- which in the U.S. unofficially kicks off on Nov. 29, Black Friday -- and contributing to the sluggish gains. MetroStore Scanner's data hinted at the possibility. So far this month, an average of 245 new apps have been added to the store, slightly more than October's average of 236. But the tracking site logged 512 new apps for today, more than double the monthly average.

And Windows Store's grow has stalled before, only to pick up in later months. After an early explosion in late 2012, new app gains slowed in January and February, then began climbing in March.

But the growth slow-down pointed to the problem that's dogged Windows 8 since its launch more than a year ago. Although Microsoft has tied the success of its new operating system to the Modern app ecosystem -- and executives continue to tout the number of Windows 8 devices, particularly PCs, being sold -- industry analysts have long criticized the Windows Store, arguing that it lacks both the app quantity and quality to match rivals like Google Play and Apple's App Store.

Singh viewed the smaller app count increases as a worrisome signal. "Windows Store has been relegated to the background and developers are losing interest in the platform," he claimed.

But app store numbers aren't everything. Some analysts, in fact, have discounted them, pointing out that much of the ballooning tallies of any app market is dross, not gold.

Yet another metric, -- app downloads -- have not kept pace with Windows 8's (including Windows 8.1's) share of operating systems.

As Techcrunch pointed out earlier this week, data that Microsoft provides to developers showed that 1.7 million apps were downloaded from the Windows Store in October, up 38.6% from the 1.2 million in June.

While that was impressive -- an order of magnitude greater than June's 3.6% increase over February's download count -- the June to October climb was significantly less than the gain in OS share by Windows 8.

In June, Windows 8 powered 5.1% of all personal computers that went online, according to analytics company Net Applications; by October, Windows 8, Windows 8.1 and the tablet-specific Windows RT accounted for 9.3% of the world's systems.

The growth in Windows 8's share, then, was 81%, or more than double the gains in downloads during the same period, reinforcing Singh's belief that most Windows 8 machines are in fact used as traditional PCs, and that their owners often ignore the Metro app environment, or at the least, aren't compelled to download apps.

"While the PC market is shrinking, the overall volumes are still sizable compared to the user base for tablets," said Singh. "So shouldn't sales of Windows 8/8.1-based PCs be driving volume and, therefore, developer interest?"

One would think so. Microsoft certainly counted on it.

"We will sell literally hundreds of millions of Windows devices this year," Steve Ballmer told developers last summer at the company's BUILD conference, repeating earlier assertions that the market for Windows apps would be a boon for them.

Windows app store chart
After five months of strong double-digit growth, the Windows Store's gains slid sharply in August. Since then, an average of 6,000 new apps have been added to the mart each month as growth slipped to below 5%. (Data: MetroStore Scanner.)

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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