The long, dark night for Windows apps may be ending.
One of the hallmark features of Windows 10 is its ability to run Universal Windows Apps. These apps, sometimes abbreviated as UWAs, can adapt to whatever device they happen to be on, as well as to how the user is running it.
For any universal app, a Windows user downloads the same app to both a phone and a PC, but it appears differently on both, with navigation of the user experience suited to each environment. More importantly, the app can transform its functionality on the same device, depending how the user is interacting with it.
The power of Continuum
Windows PCs can often act more like tablets (witness the Surface and Surface Pro devices), a consequence of — or rather, the entire strategy behind — Windows 8 and later 8.1. Through a Windows 10 feature called Continuum, a user can switch to tablet mode at the tap of an icon, immediately telling all UWAs to transform as well, if they’re so enabled.
On phones, as Microsoft demonstrated this week at its Build developer conference, Continuum is potentially even more powerful: When a Windows 10 phone is connected to an external display, it can run the full PC versions of those apps.
From a developer perspective, this is great. In theory, it means you only have to write one app for all devices. That said, there’s still some work to do to ensure the user interface adapts properly to any device in particular, although Microsoft has plenty of tools that specifically help with that.
“I think it’s a really great start,” said Andrew Fryer, a mobile developer who worked on Windows apps for DocuSign. “Windows 10 has a lot of potential, reducing the amount of work required to get your app on all those devices. I think it’s a great vision.”
From a user perspective, it means fewer frustrating app experiences. Ever since Windows 8, people have had to suffer through PCs with multiple personalities: Apps made for the full-screen Modern environment often bore little resemblance to the desktop or web versions of those same apps. And whatever you were running, when you switched modes from PC to tablet, the apps stayed the same — a misguided user-experience decision to say the least.
In Windows 10, when a user switches from PC to tablet or something else, the apps can instantly change, too. One tap and the proper interface will appear to best meet your interactivity, whether it’s mouse and keyboard, finger and touchscreen, or gesture and voice (as in the HoloLens).
Again, in theory.
Back to reality
In the real world, it’s not clear if developers will get on board with UWAs and Continuum. Microsoft gave the hard sell at Build, emphasizing Windows 10’s adaptability and essentially saying that — this time — it’s finally gotten its user-experience ducks in a row.
“One of the core values of the universal system platform is that we have a set of system controls,” Microsoft corporate vice-president David Treadwell explained to Mashable. “And the way they work is the developer makes one call — like put up a ‘file open’ dialog — but the way that actually shows up to the user varies depending on the devices.”
Microsoft is careful when it talks about building adaptive apps with Windows 10. It emphasizes the singularity of universal apps, and points out the tools that exist (some APIs are still coming), but it doesn’t say creating these adaptive apps will be easy. Nonetheless, the promise has some developers excited.
“Windows 10 should have been Windows 8,” said Carl Anderson, a Windows developer for the music service Deezer. “Two years ago, we were all basically developing it for a Surface and a desktop, and that was it — now we have more scenarios to cover. It’s going to be more work, but it’s going to be worth it.”
Indeed, if what we’ve seen with the iPhone and iPad is any indication, making an app work reliably across devices won’t exactly be a cake walk. Although iOS is largely the same on phone and tablet, many developers find they need to do more than tweaking to ensure a good user experience on both. Often, the iPad and iPhone developers within a company are entirely different teams.
“[iPhone vs. iPad apps] is a wonderful example of when the technology vendor said one thing, and it was simply not true,” said Gary Hoffman, who manages a group of healthcare app developers. “In the real world, our experience is: It’s so different that we have an iPhone team that’s completely separate from the iPad team.”
There’s also the stumbling block of older Windows apps, and Microsoft Office is ironically a good example of this. In Windows 10, Microsoft will provide two sets of Office apps: one for desktop experiences, and one for tablets/phones. But why do that if Continuum allows apps to adapt themselves?
It’s because of the platform’s desktop legacy. Old desktop apps (a.k.a. Win32 apps) interact with Windows in fundamentally different ways than UWAs since they were created in an era that predates touchscreens and the web. Because many of those apps, like Office, have morphed into entire platforms, they can’t just be replaced with Windows 10 apps wholesale without breaking some functionality.
“The reason Office has two kinds of apps is about the legacy applications that are based on Win32 and all their technology,” Treadwell said. “It’ll probably take two or something years for Office to fully transition where the universal apps subsume all the functionality of the old Win32 appsun.”
The problem is that, like Office, the vast majority of existing Windows apps are Win32 apps. Some will work as UWAs and some may not, but ultimately, for Win32 developers, the question is the same as it was in Windows 8: Is the benefit of reaching new kinds of devices worth the cost?
HoloLens to the rescue?
Looking at Microsoft’s hand in tablets and phones, the answer to that question probably doesn’t look as good as the company would like, but there are now several wild cards at play.
The first is Microsoft’s announcement that iOS and Android developers will be able to easily port their apps to Windows 10. While that doesn’t address the Continuum issue on multiple form factors, it could get some developers to at least start thinking about Universal Windows Apps who wouldn’t before. On the other hand, early reactions include a healthy dose of skepticism.
The second is the HoloLens. It’s extremely early days for Microsoft’s nascent “holographic” platform, but the lure of augmented reality has certainly garnered more than its share of interest (not to mention venture capital) in recent years.
If a developer is looking to get in on the ground floor in augmented/virtual reality, there are worse things they could do than target HoloLens. And that means becoming a UWA developer. Boom — being on Windows 10 is suddenly trendy.
That’s the dream, though even if HoloLens is a success, it’ll take a while to inspire a critical mass of compatible apps. That leaves Microsoft in much the same position as it was with the previous Windows release: Launching a shiny new OS with lots of potential, but most of it destined to remain hidden until enough developers bite, which may never happen.
At least this time Cortana will be there to lend a sympathetic ear.
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