Preston Gralla

Will Windows 8.1 kick Windows 8 'Modern' developers to the curb?

June 19, 2013 11:20 AM EDT

Microsoft will release a test version of Windows 8.1 at its BUILD developers conference next week, but there's a chance that Windows update could go a long way towards hurting those developers, and slowing app growth in the Windows Store. Is there anything Microsoft can do to combat that?

Reports say that among Windows 8.1's changes will be a boot-to-the-desktop option that allows people to bypass the Start screen. Many users have been clamoring for it, because they find little use for the touch-oriented Start screen.

That will certainly please users. But it may also hurt those, like many at the BUILD conference, who are writing so-called "Modern" apps for Windows 8, apps that are written for the Start screen and for touch. The reason is simple: If people bypass the Start screen, they'll have no reason to run the Windows 8 apps that run on it.

Michael Cherry of Directions on Microsoft fears this may happen, especially because he says there are now few if any compelling Windows 8 apps, so many people may opt for the boot-to-desktop option. He told Computerworld:

"The bottom line is that there is not a Modern app that does anything for me. And the real danger [with the changes in Windows 8.1] is that developers start to think, 'I might as well stay with an old-style, Win32 app.'"

In advance of BUILD, Microsoft is trying to drum up excitement for Windows 8 apps and the Windows 8 Store. It just announced a slew of new apps that are now available or soon to be available for the Windows Store, including the VEVO music-and-video playing app, the Time Out series of city guides, and Disney's Where's My Mickey? puzzle game.

Microsoft also announced that the Windows Store now has 80,000 apps, having added 10,000 in the last three weeks. Given that both iOS and Android have more than 800,000 apps available for them, though, that 80,000 figure is less than stellar.

As a general rule, many Windows 8 apps are already available for either iOS, Android or both, and they come to Windows 8 as an afterthought. And a bigger problem is that not uncommonly, the same app costs more on Windows 8 than it does for either iOS or Android. Geekwire notes, for example, that Where's My Mickey? will sell for $4.99 on Windows 8, versus $1.99 on Android and the iPad. The reason? A smaller installed base means that developers need to sell their apps for more money because they'll sell fewer of them.

Windows 8.1's expected ability to let people boot directly to the desktop will only make that worse, because even fewer people will even see the Start screen.

What can Microsoft do? For one thing, it needs more compelling Windows 8 apps. As a general rule, Windows 8 apps are less feature-rich and useful than their desktop counterparts. They frequently are written as touch-oriented tablet apps, which usually makes them simpler with fewer capabilities.

So if Microsoft wants more people to use Windows 8 apps, it needs to have better apps that people really want. It's this simple: Build it, and they will come.