Has Windows 8.1 revived Windows app development?

In late March, the first builds of Windows 8.1 leaked to the Web. At about the same time, the number of Windows 8 apps reversed several months of slowing growth and charted four straight months of app increases.

Coincidence?

It’s certainly possible. And yet, the slowing of Windows 8 development reversed course right around the time when Microsoft needed it most—when the Win 8.1 build was released. That trend is good news for Microsoft as it prepares for its Build 2013 developer conference on Wednesday, when the company will unveil the first preview of Windows 8.1.

Background

Windows 8 development started off strongly following the launch of Windows 8 in October—20,000 apps were launched in a month, followed by 15,000 the next—all apparent signs that developers were continuing the trend of Windows development and pumping out apps to the Windows Store.

But, following the holidays, app development slowed to a trickle: just 3643 apps were added, according to MetroStore Scanner, which tracks the app development for the Windows 8 platform.

In the MetroStore Scanner chart shown below, the gray line tracks the absolute growth of the number of apps. The vertical bars track the rolling average number of apps added per month, broken down by the new apps, in blue, and the updated apps, in green.

So, the data below from MetroStore Scanner shows that the number of apps slowed down in January and February and picked back up in March.

Windows 8 app chartMetroStore Scanner
Windows 8 app growth slowed until about the time, around March, that Windows 8.1 entered the public’s consciousness; app growth then picked up steam. (Click to enlarge.)

Too late?

By then, however, the reputation of Windows 8 had taken a serious hit. Customers had begun turning up their noses at Windows 8’s unfamiliar interface, and its initial bloom from corporate licenses was withering.

To be fair, the first rumors of Windows Blue—a sweeping revamp not just of Windows 8, but of Windows Phone as well—first leaked out at the end of 2012. But the rumors began to catch fire in February and March when reports began putting a fine point on what Blue could offer. And then, in late March, we had the first concrete details of Windows Blue, from the first leak of the OS.

At that point, the drop in the average number of monthly apps changed course and began rising again. As of this writing, the total number of apps within the Windows Store stands at 94,298, after months of increasing growth.

Microsoft’s goal with Build 2013 is to keep the app momentum going.

Higher stature

While some of the features of Windows 8.1—better apps organization, a boot-to-desktop mode, as well as a shortcut to the Start page from the Desktop—are an apology to the user, Build is designed to improve Microsoft’s stature among developers.

This is important, because developers who code for Microsoft’s Windows Phone and Windows 8-powered Surface tablets can leverage code written for each platform. But they still don’t necessarily create “one continuous Microsoft experience,” said Forrester analyst Frank Gillett last week. Compare that with, say, the Apple iPad and iPhone, which share a common code base and therefore a continuum of apps.

With that said, the transition to the next iteration of the Windows 8 OS can make a significant difference.

“Past experience shows that all operating systems become better after the version-point-one release,” said Windows app developer Christer Kaitila via email. “Mass adoption of Win 8 has enabled the QA and gears-greasing required for Win 8.1 to be ready for prime time.”

Windows Store
Build 2013’s goal? Make this real estate the most coveted spot on the Internet.

“Some developers prefer to avoid being an early adopter of new tech to allow the tools and community to mature,” Kaitila added. “More importantly, the good news from braver souls helps encourage devs to come on board.”

Kaitila, who has said he has, to date, released ten freeware games on Windows 8, has also authored the Ludus platform game development kit for WIndows 8, allowing others to follow in his footsteps.

Kaitila also runs the #1GAM (One Game a Month) website, which Microsoft sponsored in a bid to bring more independent game development to Windows 8. (Ironically, Microsoft has drawn fire for what some have said are anti-indie attitudes around its Xbox One game console.)

Better tools for developers

Nevertheless, Kaitila said that Microsoft has stepped up with better tools for app developers.

“I love the new Visual Studio for Win8 because it does all the things Javascript programmers have been waiting for in an IDE: code completing, automatic formatting and syntax highlighting, instant compile times, great game-worthy rendering performance, [and] mega-awesome debug tools like breakpoints, watches and stepping through Javascript,” Kaitila wrote.

Microsoft Windows 8 junk appsMetroStore Scanner
Microsoft’s problem? How to attract new apps and developers, but not junk. (Click to enlarge.)

In an infamous statement, Keith Lorizio, Microsoft's vice president of sales at Microsoft Advertising, said that the Windows Store would attract 100,000 apps in three months.  Microsoft is now on pace to hit that milestone, but in nine months, not three.

Ironically, the recent surge in apps may have hurt at least one app developer—Jeremiah Stoddard, whose Morse code app, CW Coach, was authored for Windows 8 precisely because the OS isn’t popular.

“I’ve been writing Windows 8 apps because it’s the path of least resistance,” Stoddard said via email. “It may not have the same market as the iPad or Android tablets, but the flip side is that there’s a lot less competition, which makes it easier for one’s app to get noticed. So, although I’m watching Windows 8.1 with curiosity, it wasn’t the reason for writing new apps for Windows 8.”

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