Universal Windows Platform, now down a leg

For years, Microsoft was very clear about it’s ambitions to bring its platforms together, to give one single userbase to developers, rather than have to make apps for desktop, mobile, Xbox, Surface Hub, and eventually augmented reality. The efforts got serious in the Windows Phone 8 days, but it would still take several years for “Metro” apps to be morphed into the Universal Windows Platform (UWP). Microsoft promised a single platform for all of their apps, and they delivered. But it’s impossible to ignore their mobile play, which was floundering by the time they released Windows 10 Mobile.

Microsoft has all but abandoned their mobile efforts, instead embracing the dominant mobile ecosystems in Android and iOS, by bringing their apps to those environments. Sure, they still update Windows 10 Mobile, but with the Creators Update, only a handful of Windows 10 Mobile devices will be offered the update. It’s not a surprise, since Microsoft never really got any meaningful penetration in phones, but it certainly leaves UWP in an odd place. For years, Microsoft has been pushing UWP as a method to broaden application availability over multiple devices, but by abandoning their mobile strategy, it leaves them in a tough spot. UWP has suffered, perhaps partly because of this, but it certainly hasn’t gained the traction that Microsoft had hoped for. If it had, perhaps Windows 10 Mobile would not have been dead on arrival.

Without phone, UWP is now a tool to deploy apps across desktop, Xbox, Surface Hub, and mixed reality devices. But without a phone platform, that means that it’s basically just desktop. Even at just 5% phone usage share, phone would have been somewhere around 75-100 million devices. Xbox may eventually get there, but it’s going to be years, if ever. Surface Hub is a device that’s going to sell in the thousands, and Hololens is currently a developer-only item right now. That leaves the desktop, which is going to be the majority of the last official Windows 10 install base, pegged at 400 million devices at the end of September 2016. Expect a new figure to come soon, but regardless, almost all Windows 10 installs are on the PC.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, although there are questions of where computing will go in the future, but for now, the PC is still the go-to device for most people when they need to get something done. But if one of your key points to pushing a new developer platform is cross-platform capabilities, but you only really have one platform that matters, it’s not ideal. Microsoft generally discusses upcoming developer news at their Build conference, which will be happening in May this year, so perhaps we will see some news there on where UWP goes from here.

The odd part about UWP and the cross-platform push that Microsoft has been doing for years, is that UWP could have been focused more on the desktop years ago, and improved to the point where it makes sense to use it on the desktop over older frameworks. But that push has never happened, despite some improvements to UWP.

Desktop has been held back by old app frameworks for years. Devices continue to improve, and older applications struggle to take advantage of High DPI displays, wide color gamuts, and more. UWP could have been the solution to this, but it was never sold as the solution to anything on the desktop. In fact, its limitations on the desktop are clear. Windows 10 brought the ability to run UWPs in a window on the desktop, but UWP is still treated as a mobile-first app platform, with all of the restrictions of a mobile device which is hampered by performance and power.

Groove Music - a UWP Music app

Ideas that were spawned in the days of the push to mobile need to be abandoned, or at least add in options for developers to unlock more capabilities on the desktop. With 32 GB of memory in my desktop, I don’t really need apps frozen in the background when they aren’t the active window. With a desktop plugged into power, there is no reason a UWP can’t keep running all the time. Until desktop (and this includes laptops) becomes the focus of UWPs, the limited capabilities will restrict the apps that are brought to this framework, which means any benefits they would bring, such as touch support, share contract support, and high DPI capabilities, are going to be ignored for the more capable older frameworks.

Microsoft has done a lot of work to bring older applications to their store model, and that has been somewhat successful, especially with the Centennial bridge which allows Win32 apps to be converted to store packages, but at the end of the day, UWP needs to be a focus if they want it to succeed.

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  • Ubercake - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    When it comes to hardware of any kind coming out of Microsoft, count on Microsoft to stop producing and supporting (or in other words "giving up") on it within a couple of years. This Surface Studio is a fantastic idea. The Microsoft Band was a great idea/product. Now no longer supported/produced. The Surface RT was a great idea that wasn't supported after its 3rd year. Mainstream phone apps are still not there. Zune music player (sort of competing with iPod) was gone soon after it was started.

    The universal windows platform or whatever it won't be called because the hardware just won't be their to support the idea in a few years. Nothing portable device outside of the Surface Pro (all 10 of you Surface Pro users know what I'm talking about!) will be around using the Windows OS in a few years. Why is Microsoft focusing at all on a universal platform that isn't Android- or iOS-based when you know no Microsoft hardware is supported for more than a couple of years? So they can quit it in a couple of years like everything else?
  • xthetenth - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    The reason the Surface 3 is gone without a successor is because the niche for a lower cost 2 in 1 is an ecosystem now, not a single product.
  • Flunk - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    Intel also pulled the plug on the line of Atom chips the Surface 3 used, leaving Microsoft high and dry. It's possible they'll come up with a new non-pro Surface that uses ARM chips, but that didn't sell all the great the first time.
  • gerz1219 - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    They seem to have a foothold with the Surface Pro, so I wouldn't expect them to kill that any time soon. The problem with Microsoft's hardware ventures is that many of them simply haven't sold very well. They kind of had to give up on the Zune when they had warehouses full of unsold units and it was clear that nobody wanted an alternative to the iPod. Same for Surface RT and the Windows phones.

    I think any Microsoft device that kind of overlaps with traditional desktops will be well supported in the future. It's their attempts to branch out into mobile that have routinely failed and been abandoned.
  • Holliday75 - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    I have a Surface Pro. Who are the other 9 users? We should start a club!
  • SaolDan - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    SP4 FTW.
  • Instyle - Thursday, April 27, 2017 - link

    The Surface Studio is currently available so I have no idea what you're talking about there. The Surface Pro and Xbox lines have sold in the millions, have plenty of active users and are currently supported. The Zune was supported for quite a long time as well. I think you need to go do some research. The main failed products were Windows Mobile, Surface RT and Microsoft Band.
  • DanNeely - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    "Hopefully we’ll have a chance to dig into this a bit more in the future."

    Some things in game mode I'd be interested in seeing tested (and might try myself in a few weeks or month when I install the update) are if it helps distributed computing play any nicer with not just games but foreground apps in general. I run several BOINC projects with my spare CPU/GPU cycles. For the most part it just works on the desktop and with simpler games. Games that are GPU heavy or use multiple heavy threads are a problem though because the OS doesn't give enough GPU to keep frame rates up and effectively only lets the game have a single CPU core. Boinc's mitigation options are rather limited; basically I can set it so that when certain apps are running (by executable path) Boinc entirely stops CPU and/or GPU apps. It's all or nothing though (meaning I can't let it leave 4 cores free for my game and continue to do science on the other 4).

    More recently I've ran into occasional problems with HTML5 video playback while a GPU apps are running. Years ago I had similar problems with the general desktop and some GPU apps, but that was a much more consistent case. This is far more intermittent and I haven't been able to nail down any sort of pattern yet. May try gaming my browser to see what happens.
  • dgingeri - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    Why am I so much less enthused about this update than I was about the last big one? It just doesn't seem to have anything I'm interested in.
  • kwall8 - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    The best addition is an address bar in regedit. Only took them 20 years :D

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