What you need to know
- New claims that UWP is dead mischaracterized what is really happening.
- Microsoft did shift UWP app strategy over two years ago to focus on desktop.
- Developers now have more ways to bring apps to Windows 10.
- UWP is still the primary dev platform for future Windows experiences.
It was just over two years ago when I wrote that Microsoft was pivoting away from Universal Windows Apps (UWA) based on the Universal Windows Platform (UWP), and instead focusing more on desktop-style applications for the Microsoft Store. The reasoning at the time was obvious: Windows Phone was on its last gasps, and without it, developers had one less target for UWA.
Fast forward to 2019, and Thurrott and The Verge are both running headlines that seemingly spin things. Both articles have truth to them, but there’s also a more considerable misconception out there – mostly from non-developers – about UWP, Microsoft’s announcements at Build this year, and what the future may hold.
Today, I want to straighten the record slightly, but first, let’s define what we mean by UWP.
Nuance is important
Microsoft UWP or UWA?
Of course, what people mean when talking about apps like Microsoft News, Weather, Mail, and apps from third-party developers is Universal Windows Apps – apps that run across all three devices with few changes.
Conversely, the “universal platform” part in UWP refers to the shared APIs and resources that developers have access to when writing an app, not the app’s hardware destination. This distinction is crucial as we’ll see below.
There’s a difference between the Univeral Windows Platform and Universal Apps
Microsoft has conflated these terms frequently, using UWP for shorthand. This mixing of terminology was especially true during the Windows 8 days when even desktop PCs featured UWAs as the primary app experience.
Tom Warren, from The Verge, said, “This dream really started to fall apart after Windows Phone failed, but it’s well and truly over now.” I’d argue differently. The original fiasco goes back to Windows 8 and its failed tablet strategy where UWAs were supposed to shine. Once Microsoft rolled back the new Start Menu experience in Windows 8.1 – and ditching it entirely in Windows 10 – UWAs lost momentum in PC.
The decline and eventual loss of Windows Phone only made matters worse.
Undoing the damage
Microsoft’s developer mistake(s)
But one other reason — which Microsoft has been trying to rectify these last few years — was the insistence that developers convert all their “classic” Windows apps to UWA using UWP. This approach was all-or-nothing and driven heavily at Microsoft’s Build developer events between 2013 and 2016.
Microsoft will meet developers wherever they are regardless of dev platform.
To be fair had Windows 8, PC tablets, and Windows Phone taken off UWP and UWA would be heralded as ahead of its time. Instead, it failed and with it the broad ambition of UWA. (Apple and Google are ironically running with the idea now.)
Developers bristled at the move. Mary Jo Foley of ZDNet got as much from Kevin Gallo, Corporate Vice President of the Windows Developer Platform, who said “we shouldn’t have gone that way” noting the eventual Win32 and UWP divide that it caused.
Case in point, UWP could not match the power of 20+ years of Win32 development — it was too green. With missing APIs and features even if developers wanted to port a mapping app over, if the mapping API was incomplete, or lacked features they needed, there was little motivation to do so.
It’s true that Microsoft did not make it easy for developers to port to UWP and create UWAs. But that started to change, and it was especially prevalent at Microsoft Build this year, where the company took a more conciliatory approach: we’ll meet developers wherever they are.
Open up to devs
Just call ’em Windows Apps
From Build (2019) “State of the Union: The Windows Presentation Platform”
Under Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, the company has been moving to an inclusive approach to the company’s structure, services, and yes, app development. The company is not shying away from UWA or even UWP, but they are backing down from the “all or nothing” mantra. Instead, the company wants developers to use whatever tools they have to bring apps and games to Windows 10 and the Microsoft Store.
Sharing his opinion on the matter, Matt Velloso, Technical Advisor to the CEO at Microsoft, had this to say:
Why does it [UWP] need an identifier? The more the walls separating these different Windows development platforms crumble, the more developers needs can be met where they are, with their existing code, that can evolve, mix and use whatever works best. We want no cliffs. Pick whatever, evolve it whatever way… Life is too short. I don’t get all the “this needs to beat that” and stuff.
Nothing has changed regarding UWP, but how we talk about it changed years ago
UWP targets: From “Building UWP apps for Multiple Devices” (Build, 2019)
Why UWP is not dead
Universal Windows Apps are still important
New “Legere” UWP app for Reddit released June, 2019
Moving away from desktop PCs to HoloLens 2, Surface Hub 2, Windows on ARM, IoT, and Windows Lite these systems are much more dependent on UWA. While Microsoft will let such devices run “classic” Win32 apps — emulated or virtualized — Win32 is by no means the primary dev platform for such systems (I’d argue Win32 is more is closer to maintenance mode than UWP).
That’s where all this “UWP is dead” talk gets strange as Microsoft is betting huge on holographic computing and things like dual-screen PCs and lighter laptops as part of its future — that’s UWP. The idea of people firing up Win32 Adobe PhotoShop in HoloLens or Surface Hub seems quite improbable. That’s because Win32 apps are meant for desktop PCs with powerful x86 processors, not ARM, light computing, or holographic experiences.
The very basis of Windows Core OS and Windows Lite is built on UWP as the main app layer. Without UWP, Microsoft could only make legacy experiences, not new ones. There is no alternative to it.
Microsoft UWP and what it all means
Pure cross-device Windows Apps still play an important role, especially for future, non-legacy experiences
So-called “pure” UWAs still have a vital role for Microsoft and developers. These apps serve as the primary app platform for Windows Core OS, Xbox, HoloLens 2, Surface Hub, and IoT. While these areas of computing still pale in scope to “classic” x86 PCs, Microsoft believes these newer systems will grow in importance, especially with the shift to cloud and ambient computing in the coming years.
PC manufacturers are also now using UWP to deliver customized app experiences, configuration tools, and drivers through the Microsoft Store, part of Microsoft’s Universal Windows drivers program.
Nothing has changed in the last year regarding UWP or UWA. Microsoft’s failed strategy for tablet and phone is years old, but the company is adapting to the times. Looking forward towards next-gen computing experiences — versus legacy desktop PCs — UWP still plays a critical part serving as the primary (but not only) app platform for those systems.
UPW is not dead, it’s merely one of many tools developers have to bring great apps and games to Windows devices.
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