In Search of Good Universal Apps

Posted on February 13, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Dev, Windows 10 with 0

In Search of Good Universal Apps

Halfway through Windows 10’s first year, the Windows Store remains the Achilles heel of the experience. But I still believe that universal apps can be a key differentiator across the hardware platforms that Windows 10 serves, and a key benefit for users.

The trick, of course, is finding good universal apps.

It’s a classic case of “the chicken and the egg”: Microsoft seeks to attract developers to its Universal Windows Platform (UWP) by speeding adoption of Windows 10. And it likewise seeks to speed the adoption of Windows 10 by pointing to the great apps made by those developers.

That Windows 10 is a success is obvious and irrefutable: Despite the historic difficulty of upgrading from one version of Windows to another, there are now well over 200 million active Windows 10 users, most of them courtesy of upgrades.

Evidence of Windows 10’s success with developers is more anecdotal, and I’m always nervous when Microsoft falls back on squishy metrics rather than hard numbers: There have been “over 3 billion visits” to the Windows Store since Windows 10 launched, Microsoft claims. But visits aren’t downloads or purchases, many of those visits were for entertainment content not apps/games, and, most damning, “Windows 8.x still accounts for the majority of Store downloads.” Ugh.

Not helping matters either is the fact that Windows phone, the second and shakiest of the Windows 10 “legs,” is a walking dead platform, kept alive artificially so it can remain a bullet point alongside the other device types on which this platform runs: Internet of Things (IoT) embedded devices, tablets (of all kinds), PCs (of all kinds), Xbox One, HoloLens, Surface Hub, and more.

But even the Windows phone disaster has a silver lining: For those who do stick with Microsoft’s platforms, the Universal Windows Platform offers some unique advantages. You can purchase an app or game once, in many cases, and use it across platforms, for example. You can learn an app once, and have a consistent experience across platforms. And for Windows phone in particular, the benefit is potentially transforming: Despite the fact that few people are buying Windows phones right now, the “cost” of making a Windows 10 app work on phone is negligible. It’s not a new app, it’s the same app.

For me, the universal app story has been a non-event for the most part. But there are some signs of life.

First and most important, while many will still quibble with the quality of the built-in apps in Windows 10 for whatever reasons, you can’t really argue about two aspects of this situation: Those apps are almost always huge improvements over the equivalent apps in Windows 8.x, and those apps have by and large all improved immensely since Windows 10’s July 2015 launch. The Universal Windows Platform isn’t a static thing, and as with other mobile app platforms, continual updates has really improved matters across the board.

The Mail and Calendar apps (really a single app package) are a great example: They were borderline unusable when Windows 10 launched, but Microsoft has continually updated both and they’re now quite capable.

Photos, sadly, has not been improved in ways that I find useful, and if you compare that app to, say, HP’s Snapfish, you can see what I mean: Snapfish is a universal app that connects to multiple online services, including Facebook, Instagram and Flickr, plus of course Snapfish. Remember when the Photos app in Windows/phone did that sort of thing? We need this.

So I’m on a quest. A quest to find the truly good universal apps. Unlike some blogs, I’m not going to write about every single app that comes down the pike—that’s a fool’s errand—nor would I waste your time documenting every minor update that happens to those apps; a fool’s fool’s errand, as it were. But I am looking, and intend to write about, the quality apps. There must be some out there.

For the built-in apps, I now use Mail, Calendar, Groove, and of course Store on daily basis. But my list of gotta-have-it third party Store apps is, alas, a bit short at this moment. There are games I like and can recommend, like Minecraft and Rise of the Tomb Raider, but I can’t honestly say I use them regularly. Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote Mobile are all excellent in their own way, but they require Office 365 subscriptions—a mistake, I think, on Windows 10—and of course use the full desktop applications instead. Entertainment apps like Netflix, though I’d only typically use those on the road since we have Roku and Apple TV devices in the living room here at home. I install and use the Xbox (Beta) app as well, but it’s not a daily thing.

So what’s out there, on PC and on mobile, and preferably on both? What apps can you seriously recommend, universally, over built-in apps, or (for PCs) desktop application equivalents? Is there a photo app that can acquire photos as elegantly as Windows Live Photo Gallery? Or a photo editor that can perform the basic functions which I currently use Adobe Photoshop Elements for?

I’ll keep looking, and I’ll highlight and recommend the apps (and games) I find that provide a unique value for Windows 10 users. Right now, it’s a pretty short list, I think. But please, prove me wrong, and together we can watch as this platform grows and evolves into something I hope will be truly special.


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