It’s been a busy few weeks for Microsoft: unveiling Windows 10 S, the Surface Laptop, and a slew of major Windows 10 updates and features at Build 2017. But one thing that stood out among the various announcements by Microsoft was a renewed focus on the Windows Store, which is increasingly looking like a central piece of the future of Microsoft’s operating system.
When the Windows Store launched back in 2012 alongside Windows 8 and Windows RT, things were very different. Fueled by the massive success of Apple’s iOS App Store, tech companies were running to create storefronts of their own to keep up (including Apple, who released the far less successful Mac App Store in 2011), and Microsoft wasn’t going to get left out.
But the Windows Store was a confusing mess in 2012. Windows 8 ran on Intel’s x86 / x64 architectures, while Windows RT ran on ARM, but the two shared a store, meaning that the apps on offer had to be ARM compatible since everything in Windows Store had to also run on RT.
That meant that the Windows Store of old was essentially just Metro-ized, tablet-focused applications that were designed to compete with Apple’s iPad, instead of allowing the store to serve as a repository of traditional Windows programs. Additionally, software built with the popular .NET and Win32 frameworks wasn’t eligible for the store, making it virtually impossible for many popular programs to be available without fundamentally remaking things from scratch specifically for Windows 8 / 10.
But Microsoft has learned a lot since the initial lackluster launch of the Windows Store. Windows 10 introduced the Universal Windows Platform, which made it easier for developers to create applications that would work on multiple platforms. And last year at Build 2016, Microsoft announced a Desktop Bridge Tool that would help port traditional .NET and Win32 Windows desktop applications to Windows Store-compatible versions. And of last year, all future first-party Xbox One games will be offered as cross-compatible Windows 10 options through the shared Windows Store as part of the Xbox Play Anywhere program, giving Microsoft a viable incentive for users to use the Windows Store over competitors like Steam.
The recent news from Microsoft builds on that: Windows 10 for ARM — in essence, Microsoft’s second shot at RT — will be able to run almost any x86 application through emulation whether installed through the Windows Store or not, fixing one of RT’s biggest flaws. Microsoft seems so confident that it can get developers to put real desktop applications on the Windows Store that the new Windows 10 S operating system will only be able to run store apps. And the company is wasting no time on corralling some big names to the Windows Store, including iTunes, Spotify, and even several Linux distros.
Instead of the store serving as the lowest common denominator of basic ARM apps, Microsoft is rebuilding it as the core of any Windows software experience. You may have to go farther afield to install something like Photoshop, but most of what you need should be right there on the store.
If Microsoft can really convince users and developers alike to take another chance and embrace the Windows Store, it could change Windows as we know it. Installing and uninstalling software would be dramatically easier for users (rather than requiring a user to download an executable file, install it, and hope that the developer included some kind of uninstaller for when they want to get rid of it). A central store would also make software updates easier.
Additionally, Microsoft recently added an option in the Windows 10 Creators Update to optionally block installing applications that aren’t from the Windows Store, similar to Apple’s Gatekeeper feature on OS X. In a world where the Windows Store is robust enough to offer all the programs you need, Windows then becomes significantly more secure for end users.
Oh, and there are some big benefits for Microsoft if it can pull this off, too, given that the company gets a nice 30 percent cut of app purchases. (And if Apple’s iOS App Store revenue is anything to go by, this could translate into a pretty big windfall.)
Of course, Microsoft is fighting an uphill battle. Remember, Apple tried a similar tactic with the Mac App Store, which never had the problems of Microsoft’s multiplatform confusion. But between sandboxing restrictions that limit what apps can do, and the fact that it was tough to convince developers to fork over 30 percent of their profits when they could just as easily sell it on their own, the Mac App Store has yet to become an indispensable part of the operating system.
Whether or not Microsoft and its more lenient policies can succeed where Apple failed is still up for debate, but taking all the recent news from the company together, it’s clear that the Windows Store is going to be a major focus point for Microsoft going forward. Now Microsoft has to get its developers and users to follow step.