Why Developers Are Choosing the Windows Store

The Store is the future of Windows, and you’re going to like it.

It was 2:15 AM on a Sunday morning. I had less than six hours left to submit our new app in time for the marketing campaign launch. If we didn’t pull it off, thousands of dollars of ads would point to a dead link.

I was on FaceTime with our lead developer (sorry Skype), frantically trying to squash a bug that ate user’s work whenever the current time was a prime number, or when the user’s file contained too many capital letters, or something — something that we were convinced wouldn’t have happened with Win32, now that we were on the bleeding edge with UWP.

Through bleary eyes, I looked at the video chat window and a browser full of Stack Overflow tabs, and wondered: Did we ruin our lives by moving our business to the Windows Store?

We pushed through our little crisis, met our deadline, and are better developers for it — there hasn’t been a late Sunday night since — and we got back to appreciating the Store’s good qualities. But the ordeal got us thinking: we knew our reasons for being in the Store, but we didn’t know what motivated our peers (and competition).

After publishing our survey of Store end-users, it was the perfect time for us to turn our attention to the other side of the equation. We wanted to understand one thing: why are developers choosing the Windows Store?

Over the course of a month, we collected feedback from 23 developers who have successful apps in the Store, reaching them through Twitter ads, Reddit and Hacker News posts, and links on our blog. Some of their apps are big, some are niche, but they’re all labors of love for an app store that’s often overlooked by the developer community at large.

What we learned surprised us — but it started to make sense when we considered the past 25 years of Microsoft’s history. And today, even as pundits rail against Windows 10 S for locking developers and users alike to the Store and its stack, everything’s starting to come together.

The results

Every developer had their own story about how they came to the Store, but there were common threads in the responses. Here’s the breakdown:

From a sample size of 23 respondents. Responses may fit into more than one category.

We processed the responses further, into three categories:

  1. Windows user: These are developers who chose the Store because they are Windows users themselves, or who otherwise have previous experience developing for Windows, and are now scratching their own itch
  2. End-user landscape: These developers chose the Store because of the end-user experience — the lack of competition, easy app installation for users, community engagement, etc.
  3. Development platform: These developers chose the Store for its development platform, programming language choice, official APIs, and the IDE.

The overlap between these categories paints an interesting picture:

Due to rounding, percentages may not add up to 100%

But what is it about the platform, exactly, that draws developers in? Why is being a Windows user so germane to developing an app for the Store? And what do developers find so compelling about the end-user experience of an app store that it makes them start developing for it?

A secret army of app developers, ready and waiting

What kind of computer did you have when you were growing up? If you’re around my age, I can guess that you had a Windows PC, and I’ll be right around 90% of the time. And while we were growing up, a legion of developers was cranking out Windows desktop software that produced billions of dollars of value annually.

Five or ten years after my cohort of mostly-Windows users grew up and entered the workforce, Apple launched their App Store and started a gold rush. Some Windows developers gritted their teeth, bought their first Macs, and got busy cranking out fart apps and flapping birds for iOS. Others tried their hands at Android development.

Those of us still developing for Windows were stuck doing it the old way: make an installer (it’ll be flagged by antivirus), host it somewhere (it’ll be blocked by a fake “download now!” ad), make some sales (roll your own licensing), and fix some bugs (roll your own updater). You either had a team to help you, or a very high pain tolerance.

Enter the Windows Store: an app store that you can develop for without buying a new computer. It was stunted and broken at first, but now it’s on a half-billion devices, and its users are starving for apps (more on that later).

I’m a strong supporter of the Microsoft ecosystem and the Windows Store as part of that story. […] I use Edge as my primary browser and I wanted to be able to use uBlock on it. — uBlock Origin

The Windows Store meant a Windows developer could get exposure in an app store with hundreds of millions of users, while simultaneously developing for the devices they already owned.

Easy to start [developing]. No special hardware or software requirements, very little cost, and I use the devices/platform myself. — Game of Clowns
I own a Windows Phone, and just got frustrated with the app gap. — GitIt

Developers could keep making software for the same platform they’ve always targeted, but now they could spend more time on the app itself — and less time worrying about delivery and ecommerce.

Because I owned a Surface and a Lumia. I owned the devices before I even learned to code. It doesn’t make sense if I had those devices and made an Android app. — Pillbox
Distribution and a single, trusted source for the download are the main reasons I created Windows Store app. — Bedia UV

Essentially, the arrival of the Store activated the millions of developers who were shut out of the first App Store gold rush because they owned the wrong kind of pickaxe.

Underserved users with a thirst for apps

“Do not, my friends, become addicted to apps. They will take hold of you, and you will resent their absence!”

Windows users hate the “app gap”, a term referring to the many apps in the iOS and Android app stores that are absent from the Windows Store.

Windows developers, on the other hand, love the app gap. Where users see an annoying platform limitation, developers see the blue ocean of opportunity:

…On Windows Store, I had no competitor. Auto Face Swap is the only app in the Windows Store which does face swapping reasonably well. […] On Android, or on the iPhone platform, there are hundreds of face swapping apps. — Auto Face Swap

The Windows Store makes it easier for users to install, remove, and purchase software. Developers know that lowering user acquisition friction makes for good business. And the number of potential users a developer can target in the Store is astounding — the Windows Store is more than five times the size of the macOS App Store.

It allows me to reach hundreds of millions of users worldwide, and I don’t have to worry about delivering updates to users, since Windows handles that automatically. — Short.y

On one hand, you have a huge, underserved community, and on the other hand, a bunch of developers who can now scratch their own itch while serving those same users.

And speaking of the community: since so many developers ignore the Windows Store, those who don’t reap outsized community engagement in the way of user feedback, beta testers, and word of mouth:

The community is another thing I love. If people like your app, they start to write to you and help with development, suggesting ideas and changes, other than just writing to say “thanks”. It is very cool. — VPassword+

A half-billion highly-engaged potential users, all of them able to safely install your app in a single click, all of them ignored by your competition. What’s a developer not to like?

The Store plays to Microsoft’s strengths

“That’s okay, I didn’t really wanna use Visual Studio to make an app anyway. That’s cool.”

If you’ve ever developed for Android or iOS, I bet using Android Studio or Xcode wasn’t your favorite part of the experience. It’s a fair guess that Java or Objective-C didn’t blow your socks off either (maybe you were lucky enough to use Swift instead).

Windows Store developers, on the other hand, can’t get enough of their development environment. They rave about Visual Studio, XAML, C#, and the ability to target multiple platforms with the same code:

The Developer tools in Visual Studio and the supporting tools are brilliant. I get to reach a diverse user base in Windows Mobile, Windows Laptops and Desktops as well as Holographic and Xbox. — Voyer

But most of all: they love UWP.

I love how UWP is structured — Fast Ink!
Because UWP allows me to target any device category I can think of, while using what is IMO the best tooling available. — Keystroke

Pundits, competitors, and users alike love to hate UWP. Their complaints — some fair, some not — focus on performance and capability differences between UWP apps and traditional Win32 programs.

But UWP — its design, multiplatform capability, and polish— was the most-cited reason for developing for the Store by developers, and Microsoft sees it as someday displacing Win32.

There are great tools available to build UWP apps and Visual Studio has everything a developer needs. The platform is still young and needs time to mature but in its current state, it is powerful. — Short.y
[…] I think UWP will likely replace Win32 programs and become the standard for Windows development. — 8trX

The Win32 API is now more than 20 years old. If you want to spend an entertaining evening at home, just fire up The Old New Thing blog by Raymond Chen and admire the contortions Microsoft has performed over the years to keep this ancient API happy and ticking along.

After two decades of pain at Microsoft, there’s a silver lining: there is no other company (including Apple!) that knows so excruciatingly well what functionality users demand of their computers, and exactly how far developers will push the boundaries of a sandbox.

UWP is the product of that pain. It matured through .NET, Silverlight, WPF and a few other stages, arriving as a a complete reimagining of how a Windows app should behave, from window management to file operations.

Today, after a rough start with Windows Runtime 8.x, there are apps that would shine in any app store — but they’re being released on Windows 10 first. And Microsoft keeps adding to what UWP apps are able to do, while maintaining backwards compatibility with the original Windows 10 release from two years ago.

C# is my preferred programming language, UWP is a great framework, [and] Visual Studio is the best IDE. — Diarium — Private Diary / Daily Journal

UWP development is like a comfy couch compared to yesteryear’s iron benches of Win32. C# is a great language — it’s like Swift, before there was Swift. Visual Studio is the best IDE on the market today, and I’ve tried them all. Everything on the platform is well-documented with sample code, and you can now build almost any app within a UWP sandbox (yes, there are still exceptions — but that’s what Desktop Bridge is for).

Unlike the Mac App Store, UWP completely reinvents desktop apps with an eye to the future. It is unnerving for us old-school developers, but very exciting at the same time. And Microsoft is confident enough in it to release a version of Windows 10 that’s locked to the Store.

Nothing’s perfect

Even though the developers who responded to our survey were generally positive about developing for the Store, it’s not all roses.

Once developers are done writing their apps, they hit a wall: the Store’s algorithms. Respondents said the search algorithm was somewhere between “pretty bad” and “a disaster”.

Complaints include the slow time for the Store’s rankings to update, and unworthy (or outright scam) apps at the top of results for key search terms. This drives developers to seek help from Microsoft’s editorial team, hoping to earn a place in a feature, but developers say that features are reserved for big-name apps like Netflix.

And as feature-rich as the Windows Dev Center (the developer dashboard) is, the devs we asked say there are reliability problems: downtime on critical reports, weird cookie/login errors, and other issues that get in the way of releasing software.

Something else came up more than once, and it’s a grievance that developers and users can agree on it: Microsoft’s current lack of clarity on mobile is seriously annoying. Some of the developers we spoke to see Microsoft as fully abandoning mobile altogether, and have reacted by moving their development efforts away from mobile and towards desktop and Xbox — one was considering moving to another platform altogether.

Here for a reason, here to stay

Store developers, much like their users, want a stable operating system with a thriving ecosystem that encourages new apps.

The Windows Store and its attendant technologies — Visual Studio, XAML, and UWP — are here to stay. Microsoft believes in its app store, and developers are starting to believe in Microsoft. You can see the start of a virtuous cycle: as Microsoft continues to invest in its Store, more app developers make apps for it, which gives Microsoft the mandate to invest more.

“This time, it’s different.” Yes, there have been false starts in the past. But now, we have a 2-year long track record of Microsoft supporting the Store and UWP, capped off with the launch of Windows 10 S. That’s a big bet, even for Microsoft, and it’s a signal of their commitment to the platform. Whatever problems there are with the Store’s developer experience, expect Microsoft to take them seriously: Microsoft knows that it needs its developers, and acts accordingly.

Developers are choosing the Windows Store because the Store is the future of Windows. And the clearer that becomes, the better the Store will get, for everyone.

Thank you to the developers who answered our survey over the past month!

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