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."

Cherry and Miller contended that Microsoft has yet to do either, and that without a much-improved app ecosystem with more high-quality apps, Windows 8 is destined to disappoint Microsoft, enterprise customers and consumers.

"But I don't see this as a mulligan at all," said Miller, referring to the golfing term for a do-over. "I see this as Microsoft betting the farm on Windows Store, and still doing that, but then cautiously retooling what they built for Windows 8 on the desktop.

"Microsoft's saying, 'You don't have to be a second-class citizen with a mouse and keyboard,' and that's really important to people like me who spend most of their time on the desktop and don't have a touch PC," Miller added.

Microsoft and analysts alike have put some of the blame for Windows 8's poor performance on shortages of touch-enabled personal computers, and on the high prices of those that have been available.

On the bright side, said Miller, Windows 8.1's changes could be the tipping point for businesses -- assuming Microsoft solves the app issues.

"It will ... possibly help corporations or businesses that may have hesitated," said Miller. "It may be enough for some to skip Windows 7 and upgrade straight to Windows 8. It may be enough of a change that they look at that. If so, it would be a huge win for Microsoft."

Miller described the revealed changes in Windows 8.1 as Microsoft "slowly putting back what it took out," but both he and Cherry cautioned against coming to conclusions too quickly. Microsoft, they noted, has promised to divulge more information about the update's contents between now and BUILD.

"They're teasing us," said Cherry. "They learned from Apple how to stir up the [news] cycle. They're chumming the waters before BUILD. But none of the changes I've seen [in Windows 8.1] is a fix for a blocker. Microsoft has yet to tell enterprises how people are going to be more productive with Windows 8, or Windows 8.1."

And like everything else, that comes down to apps.

Windows 8.1 will ship in final form later this year and will be a free update for current Windows 8 and Windows RT customers.

This article, Hey, Microsoft: It's the apps, stupid, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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