Microsoft’s Windows Store is the new spectacle-faced kid on the block. But can it match or overtake the success of the Apple and Google incumbents? Ashton Mills goes shopping.
If Apple has taught Microsoft one lesson, it’s that selling your own software isn’t enough — you need to sell everybody else’s software, too. Long before Microsoft announced the Windows Store, we knew it was coming. Apple may have popularised and mobilised the app store concept to typical Apple efficiency, but it deals only in software for Apple devices. And while Google’s equivalent caters nicely for Android, the market is there for someone to come along and fill the niche for Windows.
When you think about the sheer volume of apps sold on Apple’s App Store, and the money tree showering down fountains of gold this happens to be, and that there are far, far more Windows devices in the world than Apple... you get the idea just how insanely profitable a Windows app store can become.
But it may not be as easy a money tree for Microsoft.
Defining the Windows Store
Microsoft has spent as much thought on the Windows Store as it has on the design and integration of Windows 8 and its new user interface formerly known as ''Metro''. And in many ways, the slightly schizophrenic design epitomised by 'Metro' and the desktop is reflected in the Store offering. too.
For one, it only sells 'Metro' apps and only 'Metro' apps. This is fine for your tablet, but on the desktop it means that while you can buy and download 'Metro' apps right from the store with a few clicks, if you want a ‘desktop’ app you’re out of luck. And considering the desktop is currently everything that people currently use Windows for, this is ignoring the single largest component of the Windows ecosystem.
To mitigate this, Microsoft has made it possible to list desktop apps in the Windows Store, but you can’t purchase or download them through there — the most it can provide is a link the manufacturer’s web site. Desktop programs are still going to be the realm of boxed copies or digital download services. Be they one-off file hosting gigs or ecosystems like Valve’s Steam for games.
And here’s where it gets even less consistent — installed 'Metro' apps show up on the ‘Start’ screen, but not on the desktop. However, once they’re installed, desktop programs create a 'Metro' tile on the ‘Start’ screen to launch it (and in so doing, switch the view to Desktop mode!). This creates the scenario of programs appearing in an interface they have no relation to.
The Windows Store can also list non-'Metro' apps — but they can’t be purchased or installed through it. They are basically just an advert for a web site.
A good example of this is games: can you install games through the Windows Store? Indeed, but 'Metro'-only games. If you buy a desktop game somewhere else and install it, it will appear on the ‘Start’ screen like a 'Metro' game, even though it isn’t, and it will take you to the desktop if you launch it. It doesn’t help that in addition to tiles for 'Metro' games and tiles for desktop games, there’s an actual ‘Games’ tile in 'Metro', too, although this doesn’t represent either category. Instead, it encompasses Xbox games (as the app clearly states). Except, it doesn’t just let you buy games for the Xbox, it also lets you download and install 'Metro' games. Confused yet?
If only we had some steak knives handy, because there’s more — Windows Phone 7 has been out for a while now and sports the same familiar 'Metro' look and feel. It also has a store, called Windows Marketplace. But it bears no relation to the Windows Store and apps from it can’t be purchased, downloaded or transferred to Windows 8.
One of the advantages of Apple’s ecosystem is that the same apps you have on your iPhone can run on your iPad, and the store for either is identical. The same is true for Google’s Android and the Google Play store. But in Windows 8, the Windows Store will provide for Windows 8 tablets and PCs, but not for Windows Phone and vice versa.
So, just what does the Windows Store mean for you as a user? If you’re on a tablet, quite a seamless experience. On a desktop PC, a modicum of confusion between desktop and 'Metro' interfaces, and desktop and 'Metro' apps. And if you’ve got a Windows Phone, it doesn’t offer anything for you.
Rating the store
But is it all bad? Not at all — the store itself is well designed. For one, it mimics the 'Metro' interface style, so if you get used to 'Metro' you’re automatically familiar with navigating the store.
On top of this, Microsoft has made it easy to search the store from anywhere within 'Metro', including a running app. If you bring up ‘Search’ from the ‘Charm Bar’, one of the categories you can click after typing in a search term is the ‘Windows Store’. This is a neat feature, because if you happen to read about an app while in your browser, you can call it up in the store in seconds.
This is important, according to Microsoft’s usability labs, as users are more likely to search for what they want than just browse the store. Still, a lot of work has gone into making sure the layout of the store reflects new content that changes regularly, clearly-defined categories for apps, navigable lists of apps for a wider view of a catalogue and editorially-driven featured content.
Updates for apps are also handled well: Windows 8 will automatically download, but not install, updates in the background while the machine is idle and is smart enough not to do this if you happen to be connected to a mobile network instead of Wi-Fi, so as not to waste your cap. The feature can be disabled from the store’s preferences if you wish.
In the not-so-nifty camp, however, there’s at least one limitation: while 'Metro' apps can be installed on multiple Windows 8 machines, you’re limited to a maximum of five devices. This is in addition to the protection afforded by the fact that all these machines must be linked to your account regardless. At least Windows Phone devices don’t count...
Apps can be installed on a maximum of five devices, configured through the Settings page.
What about developers?
We’ve had plenty of time to play with the Windows Store during the Consumer Preview and Release Preview builds, but what about if you want to build and sell your own apps through the store?
To try to make the process easy and therefore attractive, submitting an app can begin right from within Visual Studio. One nice feature here is that you can reserve your app name even before you submit a completed app. This isn’t just a great way to ensure you can maintain a vision for your app (it would kind of suck having artwork and logos made only to find that by the time you submit someone else has taken your name), but for Microsoft it also encourages early participation in the app-submitting framework. This ultimately consists of a number of steps from validation and monetisation to internationalisation — all things a developer should be considering from the get-go.
Aiding this, developers can download the Windows App Certification Kit, which runs the same tests the store runs during certification, making it easier to ensure an app meets the certifications without wasting time in the process.
Example output of the ‘Technical’ phase of the certification process.
When submitting an app, there are a range of features developers can add, such as trials and in-app upgrades. Some good advice promoted by Microsoft is that the best possible advertising for the app is the app itself — and indeed, according to its own metrics, apps with trials sell five times more than apps without. You don’t need to build a separate app for a trial, either: the store can effectively limit the app’s usefulness based on a time period you set (one day, one week, one month or indefinitely).
The actual process of certification follows a number of steps: ‘Pre-processing’ (mostly checking of paperwork); ‘Security tests’ (virus and other malware); ‘Technical compliance’ (same tests as included in the Windows App Certification Kit); ‘Content compliance’ (manual labour-driven checking of content to meet content policies); ‘Release’ (basically ready, but you can delay publishing to a set a date, which keeps it at this state); and ‘Signing and publishing’ (the app is signed with a trusted certificate linked to your developer account).
A developer can check the status of these steps at any time through a cleanly laid out status page, which can also provide detailed feedback for any steps that fail to meet the process.
Numerous steps are involved in publishing an app. A handy dashboard helps you keep track of progress.
Finally, Microsoft provides two ways you can enter the program as a developer: individual or company. The former is fairly straightforward, but requires you live in one of the developer markets Microsoft supports. The latter requires that just the business is registered in a supported market, although business applications are first verified by Microsoft including over the phone.
And with the release of Windows 8 to RTM, the Windows Store currently supports 38 languages for app submission with some 80 market-specific app catalogues.
Show me the money!
The all-important question: how much do you make if you sell through the Windows Store?
Breaking ranks with the traditional model, Microsoft is proud to advertise that while initially all apps get 70% of the revenue with the remaining 30% going to Microsoft (just as with Apple’s App Store), once sales of the app reach US$25,000 this increases to 80%.
You can set a price, whether there’s a trial period and the wide range of markets the app can appear in.
Pricing differs from Apple and Google’s models, too: the minimum price is US$1.49, up to a maximum US$999. This has caused some controversy, given the 99c mark is a widely known ‘impulse buy’ category and something for which Apple’s App Store is popular. Of course, there’s nothing stopping Microsoft changing this in the future, but for the moment this isn’t an option.
Not surprisingly, there are a range of other caveats, unfortunately also learning from forebears like Apple: revenue from your apps is paid monthly, and there’s a static 30-day period from the date of publishing for new apps before any payment will be made. Furthermore, any payment period in which an app makes less than $200 won’t be paid, instead rolling over until the sales exceed $200.
Finally, for Australian developers, it’s up to you to manage tax reporting of this income just like any other. Note, however, that sales made in the US market may be subject to US taxes (see an accountant to clarify your obligations).
What’s in Store?
Naturally, Microsoft wants to encourage app development as rapidly as possible to bring the store up to speed, so it’s provided a compelling argument on its Channel 9 developer forum: by the end of 2012 alone, some 400 million PCs will have shipped. This is more than all the Apple devices (all of Mac, iPhone and iPad) and Android devices (phones and tablets) combined. In other words, if you want to make money selling apps, the Windows Store is where it’s at.
However, as much as Microsoft might want otherwise, desktop adoption of Windows 8 is not akin to 'Metro' adoption. And anecdotally from our experience, 'Metro' on the desktop is something that’s going to be tolerated more than embraced, so just how ‘big’ is the market for 'Metro' apps really going to be?