Hey, Microsoft: It's the apps, stupid

Analysts applaud changes to Windows 8 UI, but wonder when, or if, Microsoft will kick app development into high gear

Microsoft today revealed some of the changes in Windows 8 due to reach customers in a month, but didn't address what analysts called the biggest barrier to the OS's success.

That would be Windows 8 apps, dubbed "Modern" apps, or if one sticks to Microsoft's original but now discarded moniker, "Metro" apps.

"The bottom line is that there is not a Modern app that does anything for me," said Michael Cherry of Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash. research firm that focuses only on Microsoft. "And the real danger [with the changes in Windows 8.1] is that developers start to think, 'I might as well stay with an old-style, Win32 app.'"

Among the changes Microsoft will debut June 26 when it rolls out a public preview of Windows 8.1 is an optional boot-to-desktop that will let users bypass the tile-style Start screen, and at least superficially, make Windows 8.1 look and work like Windows 7.

Other changes include the return of a Start button -- although Microsoft refused to call it such, instead referring to it as a Start "tip" -- and a new "Apps view" that acts very much like a full-screen, customizable Start menu, which has not been restored.

Cherry's worries relate to the premise that Microsoft promoted last year to app developers, and how Windows 8.1 partially invalidates that premise.

"Last year, Microsoft told developers, 'The reason why you should write apps is that there's so many people running Windows and they're going to quickly migrate to Windows 8,'" said Cherry. "We now know that's not true. Microsoft can't just stand there and say, 'Some day the millions will come.' They now know they need the apps to bring the millions over [to Windows 8]."

Microsoft's original premise was based on requiring customers to use the Start screen, or at least move through it, before reaching the "classic" desktop that closely resembles Windows 7. With boot-to-desktop and the new App view, however, exposure to the Start screen and apps has been diminished.

Developers may use the boot-to-desktop option as an excuse not to write top-notch apps for the Modern user interface (UI), Cherry said -- a disastrous turn for Microsoft.

But neither Cherry or Wes Miller, also of Directions on Microsoft, was ready to write off or even dismiss Windows 8 because of 8.1's changes.

"I'm not ready to say whether [8.1] is a mulligan or a U-turn until after I see what they do at BUILD," said Cherry, referring to the June 26-28 developer conference in San Francisco. "But there they need to give a more compelling story than they have now about why to develop for Metro."

Miller concurred. "What we got today was a lot about the user, and user-focused buzz," said Miller. "It was the same thing we got about the Xbox One last week. Game developers will hear more at E3 [the game conference slated for June 11-13 in Los Angeles]. Windows developers will hear more about apps at BUILD."

What must Microsoft show at BUILD? "They have to talk about what they're going do for developers to make it easier to build great apps," Miller said. "And a real advocacy for how to build business apps in the Windows Store world."

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