OR: WHY UNIVERSAL APPS WON’T SAVE WINDOWS PHONE
As Windows Phone market share declines from an already low baseline, fans and pundits alike point to the possibility of Windows 10’s new “Universal Apps” as a potential weapon to reverse Redmond’s sinking fortunes in mobile. The ability for a developer to write her app once and easily bring it to multiple devices—from PCs to phones and even Xboxes—could entice more developers to take the plunge. Microsoft’s dominant share of desktop software would translate into a dominant share of mobile software as developers happily earn more return on their investment by bringing Windows apps to multiple screens at once. It could finally give Redmond a weapon to “increase the availability of applications for—and lift sales of—the company’s smartphones.”
While developers in the early days of smartphone apps might have found that compelling, there has since been a dramatic change in the nature of apps themselves—and not one in favor of Microsoft (or anyone else looking to promote universal apps across desktops and phones).
What was this change? The Great Mobile Divergence.
BEFORE THE GREAT MOBILE DIVERGENCE – LIMITED BY WEAKER HARDWARE, SOFTWARE, AND IMAGINATIONS
First generation apps were mostly small screen derivatives of regular computer experiences. Think apps like tiny office apps, simple games (Trism) and scaled down app versions of websites we all used on our desktops (Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, etc). Almost every bit of functionality of a smartphone was a lesser version of PC capabilities (from RAM to CPU to screen size), limited further still by nascent SDKs that put tight limits on what developers could make their apps do.
But it wasn’t merely limitations of technology that doomed early apps to be lesser versions of their desk-bound selves; as developers we were limited by our own imaginations—which had only just begun grappling with the potential of what a smartphone can make possible. In 2008—on Day One of the iPhone SDK—everyone who wanted to make an iPhone app was a desktop developer, and thought like a desktop developer.
Consumers were no better: beyond a few obvious use cases, we had yet to consider how else smartphones could work besides as a smaller PC, and had yet to demand it. To paraphrase Henry Ford’s apocryphal quote, we were asking for smaller desktop apps in the same way we once asked for faster horses.
For the reason of all these limitations, making a mobile app in early days meant taking things out of your “main” desktop software, not putting exciting new things in—let alone starting with the idea of a mobile experience (or entire business!) first. If Microsoft had been able to roll out Universal Apps then, their mobile OS would almost certainly be doing much better than it is now.
ENTER THE GREAT MOBILE DIVERGENCE
In the years that followed, our hardware, software, and imaginations have improved by leaps and bounds. Devices that started out as basically tiny, less capable derivative devices of our computers evolved into an entirely new category of device with a panoply of sensors and radios, backend services (and SDKs that let us exploit them) that made it possible for the developers—ever more skilled and creative with their new smartphone canvases—to create entirely new experiences.
Companies went from throwing together their mobile apps after their desktop and web apps to building (and furiously recruiting talent for) dedicated iOS and Android dev teams that are continuously pushing the boundaries of what we think is possible to do with technology.
The smartphone didn’t catch up to the PC; rather it transcended the PC, and took the innovation industry’s center of gravity along with it. The paths of mobile and PC had diverged—probably never to meet again so long as they will exist as a meaningful product category.
LIVING IN THE GREAT MOBILE DIVERGENCE
The most interesting developers and companies today aren’t shrinking down desktop experiences. They are building entirely new experiences that wouldn’t make any sense—or even be possible—on a PC.
Think about it. The value of a universal app is that you could write an app and have it easily working on all Windows platforms. If I had a bank app, an airline booking app, a casual game, or another app I was already planning on making for PCs, then sure, the idea of universal apps makes sense…
But what good is a Lyft app on a desktop? What good does the Luxe parking app do on my Xbox? What would Instagram even do on my ThinkPad? How could I use a barcode scanning price comparison app on a PC tethered to my desk? Is a PC going to count my steps or monitor my heart-rate in real-time? Can it help me navigate traffic with Waze? What good is a Starbucks card app (or any store app, or any mobile payments solution for that matter) going to do on a device that isn’t mobile? Heck, what would Grindr do if limited to a desktop—find romantic leads within my specified IP address blocks?
The ability to make software easily for a desktop is of little use for the brave new world of mobile-first (and mobile-only) experiences. Microsoft can’t tout the ease of making a desktop and mobile version of App X simultaneously as a competitive advantage if making a desktop version of App X is not desirable—or even possible.
Desktop-first developers will struggle to bring their apps to mobile in a way that adds value. The new generation of mobile-first developers simply won’t bother to bring their software to the desktop, which has just become a more constrained version of what a computing device can be and do.
THE SHRINKING UNIVERSE FOR UNIVERSAL APPS
Smartphone apps can be just about anything in 2015, and Microsoft just found a compelling developer value proposition for what apps could be in 2008—before the Great Divergence. Universal apps won’t solve the app problem that has plagued Windows Phone from day one. While a subset of app developers can and will bring their app to the PC and phone, the most interesting ones simply won’t.
This isn’t to say that Universal Apps aren’t an impressive technical achievement (they are), or that Windows Phone isn’t a nice OS in and of itself (it is, for the most part). We’d all be better off if the mobile OS universe could be more than just a war between two insanely rich and powerful tech superpowers, and it’s a shame Windows Phone couldn’t make it happen (it’s also a shame they had to take Nokia’s phone business down with them in the process, but I digress).
Ironically, Microsoft is standing on firmer ground with a hologram than it is with Windows Phone.