One of Microsoft's big selling points for the about-to-hit Windows 10 is that you'll be able to use the built-in Windows Store to purchase any Windows app and ensure it is kept to up-to-date. But will anyone actually want to use a feature that's mostly associated with the less pleasant aspects of Windows 8? And how can Microsoft persuade developers to make the switch?
Yesterday, Microsoft held a media briefing as part of its Build Tour 2015 developer event in Sydney. At the end of the briefing, developer evangelist Giorgio Sardo, who had delivered the keynote speech, asked the assembled group which feature of Windows 10 was going to be the most appealing for users. Every journalist agreed that the answer was simple: the return of the Start menu.
Sardo wasn't thrilled with this response. "So we really could have just added the Start menu back and stopped there?" he asked. Well, yes, frankly.
For machines we work on, familiarity counts. The "modern" interface (known as Metro until trademark concerns forced a last minute switch) is OK if you're working solely in a touch environment, but it's disruptive and unpleasant if you're working with a keyboard. Switching from "traditional" Windows interfaces -- those you see in Office -- to the monochrome tiles of Windows 8 doesn't delight most people; it appals them. Microsoft has belatedly recognised this, and the fact that Windows 10 won't require people to learn an entirely different approach to learning apps is likely to be a big factor in its success.
Yet Microsoft isn't willing to give up on that interface entirely. So one big change that will be evident when Windows 10 launches is that the built-in Windows Store will be able to sell any kind of Windows app -- both traditional Win32/.Net apps and the newer "Modern" designs. In the current Windows Store, only the latter are allowed, but that will change. "Windows 10 can bring this code into the store," Sardo reminded us. "You can repackage existing code for use in the store."
"We've been working very hard to bring all of the stores across all of the devices into one store, with one set of certification policies," Sardo said. "It's really focused on one store." That also means that the current separation between Windows Phone and Windows apps will disappear, in favour of the "universal" approach.
The Windows Store has had a troubled history. One massive flaw with its original design in Windows 8 was that it didn't even include a visible search box. Microsoft fixed that in Windows 8.1, but I still suspect that most people who want to install apps on Windows machines are doing so right now via the traditional approach: downloading an installer (or running one from a CD) and running it. Microsoft wants that to change, and for the store to become the default option.
There are potential benefits for users if they go via the store route. For starters, apps are checked to make sure they don't include malware, and that they meet a certain quality level. Last week, Microsoft outlined plans to police the Windows Store more aggressively, eliminating copycat apps and ones with deceptive names.
"This is a problem for any store," Sardo said when asked about this change. "We learn over time how to tackle the problem We tried to come up with smart algorithms to detect a good quality app. The feedback from developers was saying we want to have full control over our brands and our copyrights [and not be confused with copycats]. The feedback from users was we want to see the best apps in there."
Secondly, using the store approach means updates can be delivered automatically and consistently, emulating the behaviour we've become used to on phones. Indeed, as we've become used to buying through stores on our mobile devices, it isn't necessarily a massive behavioural switch.
However, for developers there are two potential disincentives (leaving aside the need to repackage apps for delivery via the new model). Firstly, it's not clear whether users who embrace Windows 10 because it looks more like Windows 7 are really going to want to use the store environment.
Sardo says that app options will be highlighted in locations apart from the store itself. Based on actions you perform, new apps may be recommended on the Start menu. Searches, including those via the Cortana voice assistant, will also surface app recommendations.
"We're bringing apps in front of users across many locations," he said. "We're going to make it easier for users to discover apps."
The second issue is more problematic. Developers who sell via their own online stores can charge whatever they like and keep virtually all of the profit. If they sell via the Microsoft Store, they'll have to give a percentage to Microsoft. We don't know the final figure for that -- it will emerge between now and the July 29 launch -- but it seems likely it will fall somewhere around 30 per cent (the figure used by Apple).
Sardo insists that Microsoft isn't interested in making money from "clipping the ticket" -- it just wants a broad range of apps for Windows. Time will tell.