Microsoft UWP – The Un-Wanted Platform

UWP Devices

Microsoft UWP – Field of Dreams.

They say, if you build it, they will come. But they didn’t come. That’s the dilemma that Microsoft UWP (Universal Windows Platform) faces. Despite throwing the full resources of Microsoft into building a platform that supports mobile, tablets and traditional PC’s, developers and users have remained indifferent to the offering. The problem is that it came too late, and more importantly, it came after a number of crushing missteps by Microsoft along the way.

Early Success

Microsoft has been trying to react to the foundational shift in the industry, ever since the iPhone came out in 2007 and changed the computing landscape. This is ironic, since Microsoft was an early player in the mobile landscape, starting with early so-called Personal Data Assistants (PDA’s) as early as 2000, with their Pocket PC. By 2002, Windows was being used on non-touch screen smartphones. Microsoft had early success in that area, and a 42% market share at its peak in 2007.

Blind-sided by iPhone

That peak coincides with the launch in 2007 of Apple’s first iPhone. At the time, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer laughed it off saying: “Five hundred dollars? Fully subsidized? With a plan? That is the most expensive phone in the world. And it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard, which makes it not a very good email machine.”

Within a year, Microsoft’s share of the smartphone market had dropped from its peak of 42% down to 27%. Microsoft tried to differentiate its product by introducing a new tiled interface called Metro with Windows Phone 7. The new interface had its share of fans, but didn’t really stop the bleeding.

Microsoft then started down a road of alienating nearly every one of its fans in a series of missteps intended to herd customers back to the Microsoft fold. Windows Phone 7 users were left in the dust when Windows Phone 8 was introduced. Microsoft was unable to offer an upgrade path, because the OS had been rewritten to use the Windows NT kernel (Windows Phone 7 was based on Windows CE).

Attack of the iPad

This appears to have been caused by a change in direction by Microsoft after the success of the iPad’s 2010 introduction. Microsoft began down the path of moving its phone and desktop operating systems to using more and more of a common code-base. At the same time, Microsoft released the Surface RT tablet, to counter the iPad threat. Like the new Windows Phone, the Surface RT tablet used the Metro interface. The phone and tablets were restricted to using a new WinRT API Interface, which was a crippled subset of the functionality available in full-blown windows.

Microsoft Tries Clubbing Users Into Submission

Having alienated all of its loyal Windows Phone supporters, Microsoft moved on to alienate its remaining Windows customer base with Windows 8. Windows 8 moved the metro interface to the Windows PC platform and tried to relegate the desktop interface to second-class citizen status.
The preferred applications on Windows 8 were to restrict themselves to the WinRT API, which prevented access to most Windows API functions, and were limited to full screen applications.

The tiled-interface which might have been effective on a 4-inch phone, was absurd on a desktop PC running on a 22-inch or larger monitor. All of the bundled Windows applications became WinRT-based, full screen apps. The most ridiculous example of this force-fit was the Windows calculator, which only ran full screen, and had buttons so large, you could use the palm of your hand to press them.

Since Microsoft was failing in the phone and tablet markets, they apparently decided to leverage their desktop PC operating system monopoly. They would force the Metro interface and crippled WinRT API on their desktop PC user base, in spite of how poorly suited it was for the desktop PC user. Apparently, they thought the desktop users would fall in love with the interface that had been forced on them, and look for tablets and phones with a similar interface. Unfortunately, since the interface was so ill-suited for PC’s, all it did was alienate its most loyal customers.

Stripped Features

Some of the Windows features, such as the transparent “Aero” features were stripped from the OS, apparently because they were too resource intensive for mobile devices. Desktop PC users were left with an ugly, flat windows look-and-feel. Presumably, because of the small phone size and resource limitations, Microsoft moved from traditional icons to LARGE simplistic tiles, that look horrible on a PC screen. Seriously, these look like they were drawn by a four year old child.

Microsoft also removed the beloved and highly customizable Start menu from Windows, and replaced it with the ill-suited menu from Windows Phone. The new menu was fine on a phone where you might only have a few apps, but many PC users have dozens of applications, and the new menu made accessing them a chore.

App Store Angers Developers

Microsoft also introduced an Application Store to compete with the hugely successful Apple Store. Microsoft would take a 30% cut from any applications sold through their store. While this was the same percentage charged by Apple, PC developers hated the idea and avoided the store in droves. Partially, because they were used to selling desktop applications directly to users, but also because the WinRT APIs were so limiting that most existing PC applications couldn’t run as WinRT applications.

The Decline and Fall of WinRT

Perhaps Microsoft thought by cramming the WinRT app model down their captive Windows customer’s throats, that those customers would fall in love with the ill-suited new app model and interface, and start buying the poorly selling Windows phones and Surface RT tablets.

The Windows phone continued to bleed market share, and the Surface RT tablet flopped badly, causing Microsoft to take a $900 million dollar write down. In addition, Microsoft’s customers strongly rejected Windows 8, resulting in a 14% drop in PC Sales. Microsoft admitted defeat, and reverted many of the Windows 8 changes with Windows 10.

They also introduced the Universal Windows Platform (UWP). This is essentially a continuation of the WinRT model, but with some important differences. With UWP, applications can use platform-specific API’s, and the core WinRT API list has been further expanded. The expanded core API’s will make it more feasible for apps to target multiple targets (PC, Tablet, or Phone). However, it begs the question, why would a desktop developer want to bother?UWP seems to be built with a three-legged stool in mind (PC, Tablet and Phone).

A Wobbly Stool

Microsoft has seemingly abandoned the non-Intel tablet market. They have had success with their Intel-based Surface Tablets. However, those will run full-powered desktop applications, so it remains unclear what benefit UWP brings to a Surface user. Anything available as a UWP application almost certainly has a more powerful desktop application already available. So that seems to remove one leg from the UWP stool.

Windows Phone has been in free fall, with current market share at less than 1%. Microsoft has written off $7.6 Billion from an initial $7.2 Billion acquisition of Nokia, and cut 7,800 jobs in its phone business. In spite of its protests to the contrary, it is unclear that Microsoft will continue to sink money in Windows phone. Certainly, one has to question why a developer would bother to target a phone with less than 1% market share. That seems to cut off another leg from the UWP stool.

We Need This, Why?

That leaves our sad UWP stool with a single leg—the Desktop PC. And why should the desktop developer target UWP? If they do so, they will have to pay Microsoft 30% of their revenue, and they have to restrict themselves to a subset of the API unless they want to restrict their platform reach to PC’s. And if they are only targeting PC’s, why not use the full Win32 API?

The only reason that I can see, is for the UWP Application Model. By deploying the application as a UWP app, Microsoft will manage the deployment and updates to the application, and ensure that the application can be removed by the user. For this service, Microsoft will take a 30% cut of the take. If users demand their apps be UWP-flavored, maybe it can take off. But so far, on Windows Phone and Surface RT, users have voted “No thanks” with their wallets.

If nothing else, this promises to make a great case study for business schools, and it should be fun to watch Microsoft try to balance on a one-legged stool.

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