The state of the Windows Store: How useful are those 100,000 apps?
The Windows Store’s music app selection, on the other hand, hits all the wrong notes.
The center of Windows 8’s aural experience revolves around the baked-in Music app. As the Video app does for videos, the Music app serves up playback capabilities for both local files and premium digital downloads. The Music app goes a step further, however, offering users 10 free hours of on-demand music streaming via Xbox Music Pass, or unlimited streaming if you feel like ponying up a $10 monthly fee.
Xbox Music Pass pales in comparison to most streaming music services, however—and most of the major streaming music services can’t be found in the Windows Store. Slacker is present, and it rocks as hard as it always does, but you won’t find Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, Soundcloud, MOG, or Last.fm, let alone the massively popular iTunes.
Worse, the modern version of IE10 can’t help you here. Spotify refuses to play in it, and the controls on the Web apps that do work in-browser shrink to a minuscule, unusable size when you Snap the app to one side of the screen. And don’t even try minimizing IE10 while you work if you want to bask in tunage, as Web apps go silent as soon as the modern version of the browser disappears from the screen.
Those limitations render streaming Web apps (like Pandora’s nifty HTML5 app) useless in the modern interface, though the desktop version of IE10 streams just fine.
But if you aren’t tied to the big-name streaming services, you can find plenty of apps capable of soothing your sonic needs at a base level. Beyond the Music app and Slacker, the premium-only Rhapsody offers millions of on-demand streaming tunes and digital downloads, while the Nokia Music+ app jams Pandora-esque radio stations. Prefer terrestrial tunes? Check out the TuneIn Radion and iHeartReadio apps. Shazam and Songza also put in an appearance, along with the aforementioned Vevo app.
Music options are there, but the fact that so many major streaming music services are complete no-shows cuts the Windows Store deep.
The Windows Store had zero big-name social apps at launch, and the social integration in the People app is no substitution for the real deal. Nine months in, the situation is only marginally improved, though official Facebook and Foursquare apps are slated to arrive on the platform at some unknown time in the future.
Until then, you’ll have to make do with third-party social apps, many of which are more "miss" than "hit." Count 4th at Square, MINE for Facebook, MetroTwit, Tweetro, and Reddit with Redditting as highlights. (Unfortunately, the once-nifty FlipToast app is no longer available.) The rest of the social apps are a bit of a crapshoot: Many lack core functionality or are saddled with atrocious interfaces.
As far as first-party social apps go, there’s StumbleUpon, Microsoft’s own business-focused Yammer, and Twitter. That’s it. Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Path, Instagram, Snapchat, and Vine have all yet to announce plans to come to Microsoft’s fledgling ecosystem. You won’t even find HootSuite or TweetDeck.
In a nutshell: Windows 8 users who love to get social need to get familiar with IE10 and the Web apps of their beloved networks—not with the Windows Store.
The glaring holes in the social and music categories sting, but the Windows Store’s relative infancy is most obvious when it comes to the “other” things: The random, scattershot apps that fill ecosystem holes and niche needs alike.
Once again, the Windows Store has just enough to keep users from grabbing their pitchforks and screaming for blood. Magazine-style newsreaders abound, from Pulse to News Bento to Rockmelt and the impending Flipboard. Heck, news in general is covered fairly well, as are shopping and food (yay Cocktail Flow!). Readers can scratch their literary itch with apps from Nook, Kindle, Audible, and Comixology, as well as with a nifty Free Books app stuffed with classics.
There are some scattershot highlights, too. The Windows 8 ESPN app, with its ability to pin individual teams to the Start screen, flat-out rocks. The same goes with the Khan Academy app and the new OpenTable app. Microsoft itself offers several outstanding (but not quite killer) apps, such as Fresh Paint, Xbox SmartGlass, Blink Cliplets, and all the games and apps I mentioned before.
But—and you knew there was a but coming—most “other” categories don’t have more than one or two decent apps, and I’m not just talking about a few glaring Windows Store no-shows.
There’s a Bank of America app, but few other financial institutions call the Windows Store home. Sure, there’s MLB.tv, Yahoo Sports, and a NASCAR app, but where are all the other major sports? (Okay, an NFL fantasy football app will touch down sometime soon, but a more mainstream NFL app remains elusive.) Beyond Fhotoroom and Fotor, where are the image-editing apps? Where are the tethering apps? The productivity apps? The real-estate apps? The social apps? The music apps? Zillow? Comcast? Candy Crush? IMDb? Viber? Kik? Groupon? Virtually anything from Google?
I could keep going, but you get the point. One final note: Every single cloud-storage app available in the Windows Store—from Dropbox to SugarSync and Evernote—is horribly nerfed compared to its desktop counterpart.
Wrapping it up
That last bit drives home a crucial point. Even with 100,000 apps in the bag—enough to let you try a new app every day for nearly 274 years—the Windows Store still simply isn’t useful enough to replace the desktop, nor can it compete with Apple’s or Google’s vast app ecosystem. Most of the available selection is noise, not signal.
The Windows 8 experience isn’t a disaster simply because the Windows Store is understocked. Between the apps that are available, the legacy desktop, and good old-fashioned Web browsing, you’ll be able to get through your day just fine, in a cobbled-together fashion.
But that’s not good enough. Microsoft sacrificed the goodwill of PC users across the globe to foist the mobile-ready modern interface on the masses. With the Windows Store still running pretty lean, the compromises and frustrations introduced in Windows 8 hardly seem worthwhile. Computer users have little reason to give the modern UI a whirl if they need to keep bouncing back into the desktop or browser, even if that means giving up the notifications, charm support, and Live Tiles that modern apps provide. (Tangentially: Windows 8 really needs a notification center.)
Worse, the lack of apps cripples the value proposition of Windows tablets for all but a handful of niche use cases, most of which tie directly to business or schooling. A recent Flurry study showed that mobile users spend 80 percent of their time in apps, rather than in a browser—but that’s a highly unlikely scenario on Windows tablets. If you knew you’d be spending all of your time in a browser or a in cramped view of the desktop on a pricey Windows tablet, why wouldn’t you buy a dirt-cheap Android tablet like the $230 Nexus 7 instead? (Which, it’s worth noting, has a full complement of apps at a far lower sticker price.)
The Windows Store isn’t useless, but until it becomes actively useful, there’s simply no compelling reason to pick up a Windows slate—especially a Windows RT tablet—over the competition. Microsoft isn’t backing down from the modern UI, and the apps will come eventually—but even at 100,000 apps, the Windows Store is still more than a few apps short of a Happy Meal.