Is a nasty surprise in Store for Microsoft?
A wounded Microsoft might just make developers pay for its Windows Phone failure
With milk bottles piling up on the door step and neighbours reporting a strange pong to the police, Microsoft has finally conceded the inevitable: the Windows Phone is dead. Funeral's on Thursday, no flowers.
Being the stubbornly proud company that it is, Microsoft gave word of Windows Phone's demise in the least conspicuous way possible: a reply to a tweet. Windows head honcho Joe Belfiore was asked whether it was time to abandon Windows Phone, to which he replied: "Depends who you are... As an individual end-user, I switched platforms for the app/hw diversity... Choose what's best 4 u."
He went on to reiterate that Microsoft would continue to support both business and consumer users, before conceding that "building new features/hw aren't the focus", thus adding a new euphemism for killing something off to an already rich lexicon:
"Have you seen old Ted lately?"
"No, he had a stroke on holiday in Benidorm and he's not the focus anymore."
Already the obituaries are piling up for Windows Phone, with many commentators pouring out long treatises on where it went wrong. But the answer can be summed up in four letters: apps. The operating system was fine, the hardware was good and most certainly cheap enough, but the Windows app store gained about as much traction as a bowling alley. It was, frankly, risible.
In Microsoft's defence, it was always going to be an uphill battle to win over developers. Arriving a late third in a market already torn between iOS and Android, Windows Phone would have had to be something special to attract an audience large enough to make it worth app developers' while. And it never was, despite Microsoft throwing stupid amounts of money at it. It was literally writing cheques to app developers just to get them to port their existing hits to Windows Phone, and who knows how much pressure Apple and Google were putting on those developers to stay loyal and ignore Windows.
"We have tried VERY HARD to incent[ivise] app devs," wrote Belfiore in a subsequent tweet. "Paid money.. wrote apps 4 them.. but volume of users is too low for most companies to invest."
Yet Microsoft can't use that same excuse for the Windows 10 Store. While Windows Phone never even threatened to reach a double-digit market share, Windows 10 is now installed on more than half a billion devices, according to Microsoft. Even if you're suspicious of those boasts, Windows 10 has a 21% share of the desktop market according to NetMarketshare. Not a million miles off Apple's share of the mobile market.
So why is Microsoft still having so much trouble getting decent apps into the Windows Store? Spotify only recently turned up, the official Twitter and Facebook apps are token efforts, Instagram has three stars, there's no Amazon Video or Kindle apps. Massive games such as Clash of Clans, FIFA and Mario have never made it into the Windows Store. There is some decent stuff in there, but it's nowhere near as rich or diverse as either the App Store or Google Play Store.
The obvious answer is that app developers need not bother going through the rigmarole, design constraints and box-ticking required to get into the Windows Store, as Windows is an open platform they can code applications for anyway. They don't have to seek Microsoft's approval or split the revenue from sales -- they can just publish Win32 code as they've always done. There's a desktop version of the Kindle app, for example, but Amazon hasn't bothered with the Store.
Could Microsoft drive developers into its Store by no longer letting anyone from script kiddies to Adobe install Win32 apps in Windows? It's definitely thinking about it. Go into the Windows 10 apps settings and you'll find a dropdown menu in which there's an option to "allow apps from the Store only". And then there's Windows 10 S, the version of Windows that only permits users to install apps from the Store.
Such a move would be wildly unpopular and Microsoft's clearly nervous about making it -- note the way it was quick to reassure Surface Laptop buyers that they could easily upgrade from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro at any time.
However, it's far from implausible that Microsoft will one day decide to make Windows apps pass through the Store. Windows has no future on mobiles and tablets; it's dead and buried in the browser wars; the only stronghold Microsoft has left in personal computing is on the desktop. And where else are you going to go? Apple's trying to do the same with the macOS Store.
At some point, like a waning dictator seeing the armies massing at his borders, Microsoft will decide to exert the last bit of power it has left. Remember that Microsoft never said what that S in the name Windows 10 S stood for? It may just stand for Survival.
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