Need to Know: Universal Windows Platform

Need to Know: Universal Windows Platform
Maps is a universal app that works on phone, tablets, PCs, Surface Hub and other devices.

With Windows 10, Microsoft is touting a theme of “One Windows” in which previously separate Windows-based platforms that run on PCs, tablets, phones, Xbox One and other devices are all unified into a single platform. And a key part of this strategy is the Universal Windows Platform, which will let developers create apps that run on all of these devices. Here’s what you need to know.

What is the Universal Windows Platform? “This is what is available across all of the devices in the Windows 10 family,” Microsoft’s Kevin Gallo explains. It’s what makes “One Windows” possible, and enables universal apps across various Windows-based devices.

What is One Windows … really? Part marketing slogan, part elevator pitch, One Windows is a strategy to unify previous separate Windows-based platforms. However, this process has been in the works for years. Windows Phone was brought most of the way into the fold in the current release, for example and Xbox One already runs a modified version of Windows 8.

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So what is a universal app? A universal app is just an app that runs on top of the Universal Windows Platform. And while there are some technical issues with the notion of “a single app that runs across all these devices,” it works better now than ever before. (Single binaries are possible, but most apps will require different binaries—EXEs, essentially—across platforms. Developers can and will still continue to tailor apps for the particular needs/functionality of specific device types as well.

Are universal apps basically new versions of Windows 8/Windows Store/Modern apps? Yes. Since Windows 8.x had the most complete set of APIs across the affected platforms, it’s fair to characterize this Universal Windows Platform as the next version of the Windows Store app platform. And for developers, moving a Windows Store (or Windows Phone 8.1) app to the universal platform will be fairly straightforward.

What about Windows Server? Microsoft’s server SKUs of Windows do of course support the Universal Windows Platform. But it’s unlikely we will ever see a lot of universal app development on that platform.

It’s about consolidating, yes, but also about filling in holes. One of the nice side effects of this platform consolidation is that it will make each platform a bit better, even for end users, and even without apps that run across each. For example, with Windows 10, Windows Phone are picking up capabilities that were previously only available to PCs, like the ability to use Bluetooth- (or even USB-) based keyboards and mice.

The Universal Windows Platform is the future. With this consolidation, Microsoft is putting all of its API eggs in one basket. So as it improves the Windows platform going forward, those improvements will likewise occur in the Universal Windows Platform so that developers can access them everywhere (that makes sense) rather than on just one platform. The APIs will not be fragmented going forward.

It works on IoT … and on Surface Hub too. Windows universal apps run on everything from the smallest embedded device (so-called Internet of Things, or IoT devices) to gigantic Surface Hub integrated devices. With an IoT device, of course, you may not get a graphical user interface (based on the device), but the Universal Windows Platform supports adaptive user interfaces that can scale across the various device types.

It’s not automatic. Developers choose which device types they support in their universal apps, so it’s likely that many will be PC-only, PC and phone-only, and so on. But the underlying support is available on all Windows 10-based platforms, it’s just up to developers to target the devices.

Universal apps do not run on iOS or Android (or Mac). For now at least, the Universal Windows Platform and its universal apps run only on Windows 10. Do I expect that to change? Yes. But Microsoft hasn’t announced such a thing, and they are not suggesting that such a change is in the works.

What does this mean to you? For the user, universal apps mean more user experience consistency between the platforms you use—PC, tablet, phone, Xbox and more—and, even better, the ability to buy an app for one platform and use it elsewhere. Yes, this is possible in some rare cases already, but with universal apps, the floodgates are open since the ability to make and deploy these apps work everywhere is so much easier.

What’s happening with Xbox One? I expected to hear more about Xbox One development at Build, but that never happened. It’s not currently clear how restrictive Xbox One development will be, and I don’t expect it to be the wide open field we see on, say, PCs and phones. That said, it’s fair to think that this platform shift will enable more third party apps on Xbox One.

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