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Ballmer is right, Universal Apps won’t solve Microsoft’s app problem

Andy Vandervell



OPINION: Microsoft’s ex-CEO has slammed its plans to use Universal Apps to bolster its mobile hopes and Andy Vandervell agrees

Everyone is a genius in hindsight. Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s ex-CEO, won’t go down in history as the most successful or visionary executive, but boy can he cut through the “bullshit” as he recently put it.

It was Microsoft’s revenue reporting that prompted that comment, but Ballmer also slammed Microsoft’s Universal App strategy. He’s convinced that they won’t solve Microsoft’s ailing mobile efforts and its chronic lack of apps, and I totally agree.

In a nutshell, Microsoft hopes that Universal Apps – apps that can run on mobile, desktop and its Xbox One games console – will incentivize developers to work on Windows 10. Make it easy and they will come is the mantra.

It’s a nice idea, but what developers really want is an audience. There are hundreds and thousands of iOS and Android apps because there are million of customers to serve.

Related: Windows 10 Mobile review

Now consider Windows 10 Mobile. After months of silence and no new Windows phones, Microsoft’s released two dull, deeply underwhelming phones and a slightly buggy operating system.

Microsoft’s also shelved its much publicised program to make it easier for developers to port Android apps – a similar program for iOS apps is still running, but we’ve heard little about it since Microsoft announced it.

So, here I am, a small, independent developer looking to create an app to make me money. To pay my bills. I could develop a Universal App on Windows 10 for a mobile platform with no serious hardware, no audience and no real prospect of making any money, or I could focus my efforts on the two huge, successful app stores out there.

And when my brilliant app hits the big time on Android and iOS, I could respond to 2.6%* of people asking for a Windows 10 Mobile app, or I could keep the 96.7%* of Android and iOS customers I have happy by adding the features they want and attracting new customers.

That’s not a difficult decision to make.

Windows Mobile

Get serious or go home

This is obviously a tough problem for Microsoft to solve – how do you create a successful mobile ecosystem without any apps? But it certainly can’t do that without a concerted effort to make great phones that people want to own. Neither the Lumia 950 nor the 950 XL are that.

Perhaps the oft rumoured Surface Phone will be that phone, but Microsoft has squandered all the momentum it generated with some decent entry-level and mid-range phones. Android owns that space now and a high-end phone for business users won’t turn the tide in its favour.

Microsoft is fighting a war it lost a long time ago and Universal Apps are a sticking plaster on a severed limb.

*Based on smartphone OS market share figures from IDC, August 2015.

Myk Duncalf

December 3, 2015, 2:26 pm

This is losing the point of Universal apps. The audience isn't limited to 2.6% of the market, because the whole idea is that the apps work on PCs, laptops, tablets, Xbox Ones as well! Thus, the audience is potentially anyone that owns a PC, which is a huge number, even compared to iOS and Android devices.
The problem is, a lot of the apps are designed for phones, so no-one will want/need to use them on a PC, but as Android and iOS move into bigger and more "laptop replacement" devices, there is potential for their apps to be useful on "normal" Windows devices too


December 3, 2015, 3:02 pm

You have a totally valid point, but I don't think you can underestimate the importance of mobile. Part of the reason mobile apps is a flourishing industry is that we have our smartphones on us all the time. It's the only piece of ubiquitous technology. Without that piece of the puzzle, the case for creating Universal Apps is weak. It's ok for big companies with lots of resources, but it's the small developers where the interesting innovation happens.

The concept of Universal Apps isn't the problem, it's the lack of any serious effort to grow the customer base of Windows Mobile users. Hopefully Microsoft will take action next year, but it's has a lot to do to convince developers that it's making a sincere and concerted effort.

Myk Duncalf

December 3, 2015, 3:19 pm

Ok, I agree with that, and it's going to take time for the mobile user base to grow and tempt developers. But the audience for *universal* apps is, in theory, huge already. And Microsoft, with the "One Core" philosophy, is trying to show that you can make apps that work and scale on all sorts of devices.
I really hope that developers get on board with the idea, especially as a large number of iOS apps have iPhone and iPad versions, which have in more recent times been merged into one app. The concept has been proved to work in that environment, where the hardware is different but the OS is the same, and Microsoft are trying to do a similar thing but scale it across all sorts of different hardware models which is far more ambitious.
I think they're trying to show developers what is possible with their in-house apps, and hopefully once Windows 10 Mobile has a wider release on older hardware, then people will look to support it more. It's very much a chicken and egg situation though - sometimes it seems more like Windows 10 should have Conundrum instead of Continuum :-/


December 3, 2015, 4:57 pm

Agreed. I hope Microsoft picks things up a gear in mobile since it has some nice ideas, but experience tells me that won't happen. There have been so many false starts already.


December 3, 2015, 5:40 pm

Not sure there is any audience for universal apps on the PC. Why would I want mobile apps on my desktop, or even my laptop? Their pocketability is part of their purpose. The obvious candidate is SatNav, no use on my desktop. But the same is true for a surprising number of apps - what makes them useful is that I have them with me.

Microsoft have battled with the same issue since the dawn of portable devices - they fail to understand the essential difference between portable/mobile and desktop/laptop.

These are the people who gave us the desktop mouse interface on a mobile device (Windows Mobile), and when that failed gave us instead a mobile touch/finger interface on the desktop (Metro and its spawn).

And now they are hoping that a latent demand for mobile apps on the desktop (and vice-versa) is going to save them? It's madness. Will they ever learn?

IF they can get the one device (mobile) to do double duty and actually supplant the desktop - then just possibly having mobile apps which can scale up to do desktop work on a 24" screen will make sense. But even then, I don't see a huge cross-over. I'm never really going to do any major spreadheet work or graphics on a 5" screen - those apps, even if they are on the mobile device, will only be used then it is plugged into a large screen and keyboard.


December 4, 2015, 1:46 am

When we are talking about mobile we are talking about form factors. So offer a candybar phone, a touch based phone and if you're daring a physical keyboard.

Apps are pretty tame in the presence of a desktop web browser. So get the browser as close to the desktop experience as possible. Then tout your security credentials. Android apps might be a good step if they can make them stop sending our information back to HQ. Essentially lock down their permissions.

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