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Microsoft will focus on desktops with UWP — here's why you should care

Microsoft's UWP is going to be a major focus at the forthcoming Build conference in two weeks. Expectations of new tools, improved Xamarin support, and cross-platform capabilities should be all at the forefront at the event.

Interestingly, Microsoft may change its messaging around UWP as well. With Windows 10 Mobile waning fast, here is why Microsoft could be looking to double down on the desktop.

Confusion about UWP

Microsoft's UWP has always created misunderstanding especially amongst consumers. Some have thought it meant that all apps built with the platform could just run anywhere – so the "universal" here is referring to the hardware endpoint.

That's not accurate, however.

Microsoft means "universal" to refer to the tools that let developers get their product to the Windows Store. That's why all apps listed in the Store are technically UWP yet not all of those apps can run on Mobile.

Universal also refers to non-consumer features like shared pricing structure, joint in-app purchases, the ability to install across multiple devices, and unified ad-units.

We can chalk this confusion up to Microsoft's bad naming and poor messaging. A familiar theme, no doubt.

It's not just consumers though that are having a tough time understanding UWP – at least conceptually.

Some developers also believe that that UWP is for creating simple phone apps that can run on your PC and not the other way around. I've written about this before as the "app model" is very phone-centric. Developers see UWP in the light of Microsoft's biggest failure to date. That's not good.

Microsoft sees UWP as someday displacing Win32 apps a.k.a. "classic" desktop programs. That time is still far off, as UWP is nowhere near as powerful as Win32, but for Microsoft, the goal is to edge towards that reality.

Each year that UWP grows, more features are added, and that goal is within reach. But developers are still reluctant to embrace UWP partially because of the stigma – yes, stigma – of Windows 10 Mobile.

Pivot away from phones

Microsoft's Q3 2017 earnings report solidified the company's intent to move away from phones – at least for now.

Part of that distancing in the consumer space may help Windows 10 and UWP. Here's how.

Sources familiar with Microsoft's plans tell us that developers were more receptive to UWP once mobile – and specifically phones – was dropped from the sell.

That result may seem surprising, but if UWP is meant to be a long-term replacement for Win32, having it appear analogous to tweaked phone apps is not the way to do it. And evidently that is the current perception: UWP creates phone apps for your PC.

Microsoft believes for UWP to be successful it needs to do a few things:

  1. Win on the PC and desktop first.
  2. Demonstrate how it will be better than Win32.
  3. Convince developers that these are not just phone apps.

The first point about "winning" on the desktop refers to having successful apps and games appear in the Windows Store. Developers and consumers need to shift their perception of the Store from a collection of applets with semi-functionality of full desktop apps to true desktop alternatives.

Adobe Photoshop Elements 15, which uses the Project Centennial Bridge, is one example. Another is the recently released djay Pro, which was ported over from iOS using the Project Islandwood Bridge.

For gaming, high profile releases like Fallout Shelter, Minecraft, and Resident Evil 7: Biohazard represent what UWP is supposed to do.

Fallout Shelter is on Windows 10 and Xbox. It's an example of what UWP is supposed to do.

Fallout Shelter is on Windows 10 and Xbox. It's an example of what UWP is supposed to do.

UWP needs those types of releases for developers and consumers to see value in the platform and Store.

Those software achievements mentioned above demonstrate the power of UWP when done correctly.

The app djay Pro is a massively complicated release with support for location-aware Surface Dial functionality, complex UI elements, timed audio synchronicity and more. The company behind the Windows 10 version of djay Pro gushed about how amazing it was to be able to bring their app – no limitations – to Windows 10 without having to hire a whole new team.

The music creation app djay Pro is a monumental achievement for Windows "Bridges".

The music creation app djay Pro is a monumental achievement for Windows "Bridges".

These are the kind of stories Microsoft wants to highlight, and my gut tells me you'll see the company heavily promote such releases at BUILD and in advertising.

Succeed on the PC, then go to Mobile

If you think about it, the whole concept of UWP did come across as backward for developers. Windows phone was never a lucrative investment for developers despite Nokia doing their darndest to get it there.

It's the old "putting the cart before the horse" scenario, and it's biting Microsoft hard.

Windows "Bridges" are a key component to the success of UWP. Photoshop Elements and djay Pro are ideal examples.

Windows "Bridges" are a key component to the success of UWP. Photoshop Elements and djay Pro are ideal examples.

If, however, Microsoft can distance themselves for phones and make UWP successful on desktop things shift. Now, the model looks like you are taking powerful and robust desktop applications and magically getting them to run on mobile devices. Technically, that was always the truth, but it's an easier sell to everyone once you prove it.

This strategy is not speculation, either. Microsoft is going to position UWP first and foremost as an actual desktop development system for high-end games and apps going forward. This attempt is one reason why Phone is being deprecated for now.

If UWP can't be successful on the PC, Xbox, Mixed Reality, etc. it has no hope for mobile either.

This rationale differs from what I previously argued, which is UWP cannot succeed with phones. While Microsoft would be in a much better position had they not ineptly destroyed their phone business for the fourth time in a decade the situation is so bad that it was negatively affecting Windows 10 and UWP.

Skype UWP now runs on HoloLens, Xbox, Windows 10, and Mobile.

Skype UWP now runs on HoloLens, Xbox, Windows 10, and Mobile.

All of this, however, is just more unwelcome news for fans of Windows phones. Counterintuitively, instead of putting all their might behind the phone market, it is going to put all their effort into the desktop, tablets, Windows Mixed Reality, IoT, and other platforms. Bring on as many developers into the (currently) successful part of the business and then slowly bring back mobile once they have the hardware is ready and the apps are there for consumers.

As every analyst knows, even if Microsoft released a killer "Surface phone" tomorrow with mind-boggling innovation and design it still has the app-gap problem. It'll just fail. Microsoft needs to solve that, but they are not going to do it by releasing a dead-end phone. Instead, they will put all their effort into making UWP as powerful and as successful as they can and come back to a new device category once the all the pieces are in place.

Microsoft's new push into education is the right move — at the right time

None of this is really good news, but at this time I can't think of another approach either. Microsoft 100 percent needs UWP to succeed for the future of Windows.

Finally, creating more device categories and markets is important. Microsoft's announcement on May 2 will prove the company is serious about entering new segments like education with its full might. Doing so will also greatly benefit developers and the UWP model.

Daniel Rubino
Executive Editor

Daniel Rubino is the Executive Editor of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft here since 2007, back when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and arguing with people on the internet.

302 Comments
  • Microsoft itself is confused. Seems like they don't plan but take decisions along the way.
  • Yes, It's terrible, we know nothing and Microsoft has been quiet one year. I think more and more they cut us of as consumers, they don't want us. All Surface are terrible expensive, even for business, and the sale also starts to drop there. Microsoft make big mistakes - the future is a 6 inch device, phone, navigator, player and pc funktions, a multi device with all great apps. A device we can use for private and business, we don't want to have two or more devices in the pocket. I'm or was a very loyal Microsoft customer all life, but I start to be extremely angry the way they're treating us, and I'm afraid to buy Microsoft hardware. When people ask, I advise them to buy Android phones, and Huawei or other tablets with Windows 10.
  • You forget. MS is a software company. They have no problem with you recommending anything running a MS OS, like the Huawei, or something that can use MS services, like Android. The sell the S8 in their store. Yea Surface is a bit expensive, but there wouldn't be Huawei Matebooks, Yoga's, without it. I really believe that. MS had to show what was possible to 'shame' OEMs into stepping it up. I have no problem with my MS hardware. My Surface is an excellent machine, with build quality easily equal to any Apple product, or an PC OEM. Nothing wrong with my 950XL hardware either. The problem there the app gap, making support for it a tough sell when the bottom line guys get involved. MS is a business after all. (Hey, I don't like it, but I get it). I actually think it makes sense for MS to start pushing the capabilites of UWP on tablets, laptops and PCs. There are actually enough of those to make it worthwhile for developers. If you can get that message across, and apps start appearing, then it will make sense to develop smaller devices again, i.e. phones, or devices that can serve as both.
  • You just said what i want to say, lol. It's sad to say that but as WM fans are only about 1%, why should a big company like Microsoft who's trying to bring something new on the table should care about us 1%? Do you want 1% of peoples happy or do you a larger market share and upset those 1%? The problem with hardcore fans is they tend to be too emotionals. I'm waiting for a Surface Phone quite a time now, but i agree with what Microsoft is doing, so i'm willing to wait more. For now i'm just considering buying a second hand iPhone 6S for about 250$ or a Xiaomi Android Phone and wait patienly 1 or 2 years more. Be patient...
  • Balmer wasn't a fantastic CEO, but he got one thing right: "Developers, Developers, Developers!" Since development on Windows has all but dried up, UWP is doomed to fail.  Windows isn't even an afterhtought, at this point.  And MS did this to themselves.
  • Translation: I don't get it, so they're doing it wrong.  Move along, dude.
  • I just went to a Xamarin meetup in New York - not one person there thought of deploying code for any Windows device. Xamarin is being sold amongst developers as an iOS and Android tool
  • I don't know what goes on in tech companies and this might be a terrible comparison but from what I've seen on Silicon Valley the tv show, everything in tech companies of all sizes is very haphazard. From Pied Piper to Hooli (Google equivalent)
  • sad...took them 2 years to decide UWP is working....they need to be much more agile...
  • One misstep after another.  This is the biggest and fatal to bury the phone platform in order to change perceptions for developers.  That is absolutely absurd.  Instead of making UWP more powerful to attract developers, eliminating phones will only weaken the argument for UWP.   A Surface Phone definitely can be successful if it comes equipped with a foldable screen.  Otherwise the app-gap problem would remain.  The expanded screen would support running W10 and web apps efficiently.  So we don't have to rely solely on the phone apps.  We can enjoy all the services thru web apps.
  • MS does not have to convince us, it has to convince the developers.
  • What an apologist article. Microsoft doesn't focus on phones with UWP.  That's why we don't care LOL.
  • this will kill MS. devs simply do not give **** about the windows store..
  • Wow this interesting is like not make for mobile do it for the other ecosystems and then the mobile get collateral benefit
  • They entered the Wp market with no confidence in their own product. Had no reference model, presented no basic customization for anyone not into their 'tiles', made apps for other operating systems first, had no clue how to leverage Nokia, nonexistent marketing, confusing naming of phones, no obvious differentiation to the consumer in any models, made a premier partnership with AT&T that did nothing to help Microsoft... The list goes on and on about how poorly Microsoft mismanaged their phone division. So they give up and chase something else. When UWP doesn't catch on they will bail on that too and programmers can already smell that by the lackluster commitment to anything. Good luck Microsoft.
  • Without a phone as part of the Eco system UWP makes very little sense no matter how MS tries to spin it. MS screwed up at the worst possible time to NOT have a viable Phone/Mobile Ecosystem.
  • UWP "apps" may not make sense any longer, but UWP as a platform does, especially for x86 Desktop Apps. -Centralized updates through the Windows Store.
    -Tap in Cortana, LiveTiles, Desktop notifications.
    -Purchase in the store, use the same "licensed" Desktop App on up to 10 different devices.
    -UWP games, Play Anywhere compatibility. I'd love to see Desktop apps like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom added to the Store.
  • I agree. I'd buy all of my Windows software through the Store if I could. I've been using computers since the late 80s and I'm tired of installers and all of the multiple sources for awesomeness. I want a one stop shop that is secure as best can be expected that syncs my purchases and progress and not the 5-10 storefronts and random download managers that I use currently.
  • I prefer getting the software I use from where I want to get it from, not where Ms tells me it should come from. The problem is once this sort of system becomes the norm, the next thing will be a compolsory MS account to even use windows.   
  • Good point. Now that there is a middle man, the prices of some things could go up as developers transfer their MS Store fees onto consumers (if developers have to pay a fee to sell their products in the MS Store). Before i even bought my first smart phone, i never liked Android because i didn't like the closed-in feeling of the Google Play Store. In my opinion, the openness of the Internet should be maintained. I hate feeling like i have to commit to a specific environment where i buy all my music, movies, games, books, etc. I miss being able to use whatever media downloader i wanted and loading it onto whatever media player i had.
  • There is a bit of a difference with getting applications for a mobile phone than for a computer and at the end of the day that is what Andoird is mainly used for as while as tablets, but these are fixed systems, they do basic stuff.  i know a lot of people have gone to Android or IOS tablets instead of computers, but then they are only really doing basic stuff like browsing the net, doing email or mucking around on facebook. While I do know of one person who have an Android all in one system,  what they do with it is more or less what they did with tablets but on a larger scale, true it is easier to write a document with eh larger screen and keyboard.  But don't try doing video editing or photo editing with it.  So a closed system on Android, IOS or even a windows mobile Os is not a problem. but on a full blown computer I do not want it. Music wise I use Skype, but I also buy CD's and also starting to buy vinyls again.  I do not buy Mp3s very often, videos i tend to buy DVDs/Blue-rays and I also stream using Netflix and now Tv. i do not play many games, I do have a few I got from Steam.  Books, I buy paper books and e-books from Kobo.  For my PC, I get my software from different places, I still prefer to be honest to get it on opticle meida, but that is getting more difficult.   
  • Please how do you use your Skype for music?
  • sorry, I meant spotify, this cold is affecting me more than I thought. 
  • Ever notice what torture it is trying to put a CD into iTunes library?  It's painfully obvious they do this so you'll give up and buy it from their overpriced store.
  • I do not use Itunes, I used to years ago, but it is an awful biut of software, anyway I do not normally play music using my computer.  
  • You and MS account again :)) 😄
  • I hate the idea of it,    
  • And I suppose: You want to have to pay an extra 30% on all purchases? You want to have to install a separate version of every program for every user of your PC? You want to lose access to your software when the developer pulls it from the store and you need to reinstall Windows or buy a new PC? You never have a need to go back to an older version of the software if had features or functionality you depended on that have vanished in newer versions? You like having a cap on the number of times you can install even free software? There are definietly things to like about digital stores.  But overall, I think they're a step backwards.
  • I didn't say that I want the Store to be the only place to get software, I said that I'd buy all of my software through the Store if I could, not having to deal with random installers and more. The installer part is separate from the Store itself as UWPs can be installed from outside the Store. I want consistent installation processes that provide clean uninstalls.
  • That sounds like a distinction without a difference, to me. But my point is, given the choice to buy software from the Windows Store vs. elsewhere, I'd almost always chose elsewhere.
  • That's fine, that's your choice and you have your reasons and that's ok and great at the same time. I spoke of what I'd like to do. I never mentioned anyone else or that I would want the Store to be the only option. I'm glad there is choice as not everything works best for everyone.
  • And why would that change??? I buy my XB games on the XBox directly but you can buy them on amazon, or any brick and mortar shop still... Do you really think adobe creative suite will only be available on MS store if it becomes UWP??? What about for PC always offline or remote countries... Do you think adobe will stop selling subscription or hard copies of their software on their own page....
    If anything the store is powerful ally of what you want to keep safe... A really cheap window front for smaller devs that can't have their software in the main channels of distribution... That use only word of mouth through back channels among the nerdiest of the nerdiest...
  • These are all super valid points..
  • I wouldn't mind the store if they didn't take 30% of the profit... Let me give or sell my UWP apps by myself and I might jump in and/or cut the percentage to something no more than 5%...
  • You can already distribute your UWP apps outside of the Store however you want to. If all of the developer benefits of the Store and visibility to all Windows 10 users via the Store isn't worth 30% to you, host and manage, market, distribute and build your own backend, update service and storefront for your UWPs.
  • A while ago WCentral released an article explaining why, in the author's opinion, MS should not take a cut from store sales. I thought that for mobile apps it really doesn't matter anymore. With no notable sales, the cut MS takes is irrelevant. For desktop it would still make a difference however. MS must give developers a reason to choose the Windows Store over all other options, most of which cost far less. For users I agree, a centralized store would be great, but will they make using the store worthwhile for devs?
  • @a5cent, I agree MS needs to rethink​ pricing and it's cut from the Windows Store. Developers of the kinds of productivity software that should be the heart of Windows can't be excited about a 30% fee. Much ink has already been spilled about how the Apple App Store policies are really hurting the iPad.
  • I guess developers should just release the same software on their site without the 30% cut.
    Users then get to choose whether to download a more expensive from the MS store or cheaper directly from developer. Case closed.
  • Actually, the windows store is the cheapest to buy into as a developer. Ive accounts for ms, apple and google..
  • @KillaRizzay Anyone can setup their own online store for just a couple dollars per month. That's a flat rate that is independent of sales volume. Pretty much every established software company already has something like that in place. Given that situation, why would any developer choose a distribution method that requires them to sacrifice 30% of all sales? For games it's a different story, because Steam also takes a huge cut. But even then, why would anybody choose the Windows Store over Steam? I just don't see any reason. As far as I can tell there is, no matter what you want to do, always a better option.
  • UWP apps don't need or have to be sold through the store.... This article is about UWP not the store
  • Except there's no way to access any UWP API from the desktop if it requires permissions. I've been a dev in the MS ecosystem and a fan of WinMo since PocketPC 2002, but Microsoft has exactly zero clue what it's doing right now. It's an utter gong show. I don't see how they plan to get out of this mess after the millions of times they've already tried rebranding WPF/Metro/Modern/UWP/Whatever.
  • And you can't access win32 libraries from Microsoft Basic for DOS either. What's your point? You're upset because you have to use the new framework in order to use the new framework?
  • Why would someone like Adobe want to share their profits with Microsoft via selling through the Store?
  • I agree. It is spin. The definition of UWP presented in this article is a RE-definition and definitely not how MS has always viewed the UWP as a technology. I also find it rude that now everyone else is being blamed for not understanding what the UWP was. If anybody misunderstood the UWP, then it was the folks at MS, as they certainly never defined it in the way being presented here (universal in UWP = tools). It's a shame WCentral is helping MS in their attempt to rewrite history in that regard. At this point MS has no other choice though. They bet the farm on UWP. MS must do something to save it and obviously can't rely on smartphones to help in that endeavor. It's probably the best shot they have.
  • UWP has always meant this. You can blame MS for not hitting people over the head with the clue hammer about it from day 1, but it's always been about replacing Win32, even back before UWP, when we had Metro Windows 8 apps.
  • Agreed. That UWP is intended to eventually replace Win32 is definitely nothing new. That's just entirely unrelated to the point I was making, nor is it what this article is saying. According to this article, "universal" refers to the tools that let developers get their products into the store. Nowhere can we find a previous document where MS defines "universal" in UWP in that way. We can in fact find many documents defining it differently .
  • Just look at the "Universal Windows Platform" picture with all the devices on top and all the benefits underneath, including "app SDKs and tooling". This picture made by Microsoft, along with the app bridge diagram, has been around for a couple of years now, and if anyone missed that part they simply weren't paying attention.
  • @Zachary Wilmes *Cough*. Okay. If you want to claim that it was always obvious that the "Universal" in UWP refered to either: the tooling that enables software to be deployed through the store, or the ability to be deployed from the store then be my guest. If you can show me any six month old statement, from MS or anyone else with a shred of credibility, defining "Universal" in that way (rather than the ability to run across form factors), then I'll instantly cave and admit defeat (and that I wasn't paying attention). The pictures you refer to are fine, but I've yet to see one that would be useful in terms of defining what UWP means. I'm looking for a definition. Not an arbitrary conclusion someone jumped to based on a picture.  Until then it's hard to take such statements seriously. It really just looks like people who are trying to seem smarter than they are.  
  • Any internet search will tell you what an SDK is if you're not familiar with that term. It's not that hard to understand
  • UWP makes sense as a Win32 succesor, just not with the phone API limitations in place.
  • Problem with UWP is you can only do what it is designed to do (kinda the point, I know). With Win32, there are more possibilities, for both the developer and user. Majority of applications could be fine with UWP though, although I'm still not a fan of the phone inspired navigation stack / lifetime management.
  • I agree.. Mobile should be the most important part of UWP. Mobile runs on very slow processing so if they make it run fast on mobile, it'll be blazing fast on PC. On a Celron PC all Universal Apps are slow, normal app takes more than 3-5 seconds to open and choosing a song in groove music also takes 3-5seconds to start playing each time, Windows Media Player opens everything in a second! Universal Apps lack the performance! They have to focus on mobile.
  • No good, though.  Using mobile apps on a PC is painful, because they have a touch UI, and a PC has a mouse and keyboard (and usually not a touch screen). Yes, you can do it, but it's horrible. As a workstation user myself I hate having Microsoft's touch-friendly UI forced upon me (eg Office 2016 and W10 common controls now take up the entire window, on a PC screen!).
  • I only use my laptop 2 times a week. So, PC store doesn't mean a lot for me. I don't see a future for UWP if Microsoft is going to double down on the PC. Windows store History speaks, W8, W8.1, W10 and no great apps.
  • I disagree. I have a mini PC connected to my TV all time, running full Windows 10, so that's what I use at home. I also have a 2in1 (currently in repair), so that's what I use on the go. My phones are just like accessories now, and use them as a small device to enter the Windows 10 ecosystem when in need, like listening to podcasts on the go, checking WC, making a mobile hotspot for my 2in1, etc... They're becoming less and less important in my like. If I could have a 7 inch device running full Windows 10, like the GPD Win, but with cellular connection and telephony stack, my phones would be even more useless 😁 I'm not saying I don't like my 650 or 535, I love them indeed. But they're just not as important as they were for me.
  • This!!         We just may get it by accident when the arm PCs come out.
  • Honestly how many people on this planet do you think do this... I can confidently say that, that is not how people use computers.  
  • Personally I think Edge, Groove, Mail and Calendar are brilliant UWP apps for desktop. But that's about it.
  • Meh, mail and calendar are mediocre at best. Completely unusable in a professional environment. Don't use Edge so I can't comment. Groove is good though. Agreed.
  • Mail and Calendar were never designed to be used in a professional environment, Microsoft has the very much paid Office Outlook for that.
  • I have Office 365 installed on my desktop and I still use the Mail app instead of Outlook because it's simple, easy to find on my Start screen, and starts really fast.  When I want to send a