Can Windows 8 give developers what iOS and Android lack?
Microsoft's newly released OS, Windows 8, starts its bold new life at the crossroads of PCs and tablets, and consumers and businesses.
While analysts predict that the adoption of the new OS will take time, there is one critical area where it can't afford to fall behind: apps.
Microsoft has been wooing developers to get on the Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 bandwagon. The PC landscape that Microsoft dominated for decades has morphed into a mobile battlefield besieged by iPads, iPhones, and Android tablets and smartphones.
There is an army of existing Windows developers, but the Windows Store contains only about 10,000 apps. The Apple App Store, by comparison, has 700,000.
At its annual Build developer conference last week Microsoft offered attendees a Surface tablet, 100GB of free cloud storage via SkyDrive, a free Nokia Lumia 920 Windows 8 phone and a discounted developer's registration to the Windows Store.
But the biggest incentive is something Microsoft announced earlier this year: More money. Microsoft will give developers 70 percent of an app's selling price, but then increase that amount to 80 percent once the app earns over $25,000.
Apple only recently raised the cut for iOS developers to 70 percent. Google pays Android developers a 70 percent share as well.
Two Windows 8 developers who CIO.com spoke with are both prepared for Windows 8 to grow slowly, but are enthused by its versatility across different devices, the variety of developer tools at hand and the abundant support from Microsoft.
And, of course, there's the potentially enormous audience that could rise up around Windows 8. After all, there are 670 million Windows 7 users potentially upgrading to Windows 8 at some point.
Windows 8: just like starting over (kind of)
Even with its massive installed base of Windows users, Windows 8 is still like a new kid on the block because of the recent proliferation of tablets and app distribution stores.
"I think Microsoft realizes it is not the big monopolist now and they know they have to conquer the market again," says Tom Verhoeff, an app developer and a partner at Holland-based app development company Methylium, which recently developed the Windows 8 app for Booking.com, a popular online hotel reservation site.
"From an OS perspective on the desktop Windows is still the best. But people will have to get used to the Windows 8 interface on the desktop," Verhoeff says."When they adapt they will want it on phones and they will be happy with how files sync between the two."
The success of iOS and Android on tablets remains the biggest obstacle for Windows 8, admits Verhoeff, and with PC sales in decline Microsoft won't be as big as it used to be, but will still carve out a space in the market, he says.
Independent developer Jonathan Isabelle recently developed an app for Windows 8 called Jack of Tools (a "Swiss Army Knife"-type app that contains a flashlight, compass, virtual leveler, geo-location, altitude, speed, sound meter, and other features). He migrated his app using RadControls for Windows 8, a toolset for building Windows 8 apps from application and content management company Telerik (Methylium also used Telerik's toolset).
Isabelle agrees that Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 have a smaller audience and less developer competition than iOS and Android, and that's a good thing, for now.
"The potential audience could be huge," Isabelle says. "That's very appetizing to a developer. When I started developing on Windows Phone there were tens of thousands of apps, and now there are over 100,000."
Industry research backs this notion. Forrester predicts that 2014 will be the year that Windows 8 gains firm market traction in conventional and touch devices and, by 2016, it will gain almost a 30 percent share of tablets.
Windows 8 programming goes multi-iingual
These choices set Windows 8 apart from the more strict iOS, which only allows app development using Objective C. For Android, Java is the only language Google supports.
"Microsoft is trying to show the developer community that it is not the old proprietary Microsoft but the new Microsoft that wants everybody on board," says Verhoeff.
However, while Microsoft is looking to attract more developers by supporting more programming languages than Apple or Google, Windows 8 does have very specific guidelines for the look and feel of apps, he adds, and the company is really pushing the "Metro" design style.
"Windows 8 apps behave in the same way," says Verhoeff. "They all conform to Windows 8 interface features such as the Charms bar on the right side. You don't have the design freedom you have with iOS, but you can still build a unique experience with the Windows 8 style."
In addition to the clean and simple look of Windows 8, Microsoft is also looking to make development inexpensive. As opposed to the $99 per year to sign up with Apple as an iOS developer. Microsoft Visual Studio Express is free.
One OS, one code, many Windows 8 devices
The ultimate promise of Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 is seamless compatibility across multiple platforms. Apps will run on a PC, a tablet ,and a smartphone, allowing developers to reach an army of users. Such versatility will make Microsoft unique among its competitors.
Apple's iOS platform works only on iPads and iPhones and even then the code between an iPhone app and an iPad app can be different. Developers must make adjustments.
Windows 8 device compatibility may never be perfect, says Verhoeff, as the UI of Windows Phone 8 apps will be adjusted for the smaller screen. But developers will still be using the same Windows 8 code.
"If you do it right, you can develop one Windows 8 app for four different screens with the same code, and that is exciting," says Verhoeff.