Microsoft apes Apple’s failed app strategy in Windows 10

Apple's Mac App Store is clearly Microsoft's model to force Universal Windows Platform adoption, but Apple didn't exactly succeed in its own attempt

Microsoft continues to make Windows 10 work more like MacOS. The Windows 10 Creators Update due this spring is taking a page from Apple’s MacOS app security model: A settings option to limit app installation to only those apps available in the Windows app store.

(Other ways Windows 10 is copying MacOS is in its adoption of MacOS- and iOS-style management APIs and in replicating, incrementally, Apple’s Handoff functionality.)

There are two goals in Microsoft’s new option to restrict where apps can come from, and only one of them has a clear user benefit:

  • Ensure that malware and other unsafe apps aren’t installed on your PC, by limiting app installation to apps from the curated Windows Store.
  • Push users (and thus developers) to the Universal Windows Platform apps.

In both cases, Microsoft is not likely to succeed.

app store restrictions IDG

This composite image shows Windows 10 Creators Update’s new controls over app installation at left, with MacOS’s similar capability at right.

Microsoft lacks the developer control it needs to force a switch

Malware is a big deal in Windows, costing users and companies billions of dollars in remediation, antimalware deployments, and wasted time. Thus, it makes sense to block installation of apps that could have come from anywhere.

Apple did that five years ago, in OS X Mountain Lion. But Apple did it in a way that Microsoft can’t, and that difference will likely cause Microsoft’s attempt to fail.

Until last year’s MacOS Sierra, Apple let users (or, through management policies, IT administrators) choose to install any apps, only apps from the Mac App Store, and apps from both the Mac App Store and from “identified developers,” meaning developers registered with Apple and whose apps are digitally signed by Apple to verify their legitimacy. (MacOS Sierra drops the option to allow installation of unsigned apps, but it’s still possible on a case-by-case basis if you have administrator privileges.)

Microsoft is offering users a mere two options: any apps and Windows Store apps. Because there are few useful Windows Store apps—even Microsoft’s flagship Office productivity apps aren’t available in it—no user or organization can realistically limit app installation to Windows Store apps. This renders this option useless in the real world.

Apple had the advantage of essentially requiring Mac developers to use its Xcode IDE and back-end developer registry, even if they develop from a third-party IDE. That's how it can support the notion of “identified developers,” and why it now can drop unsigned apps its options. The only unsigned Mac apps these days are ancient apps mouldering on installation CDs—and malware.

Because Microsoft has no similar control over developers—the use of Visual Studio is not required, nor must developers register with Microsoft—it can’t offer the “identified developers” option that lets Apple’s approach succeed.

Users won’t let themselves be trapped in an empty app store

The other goal is to get users and developers away from the old-style Win32s applications to the new UWP (.appx) ones. Not only would Microsoft get a cut of all app sales (à la Apple’s iOS App Store), it would finally be able to free Windows from the legacy app support that makes Windows so difficult to evolve and secure. For example, UWP apps have a much better security model than traditional Windows apps, and Windows 10 can thus enforce security better for such apps.

If the world shifted to UWP apps, Microsoft’s ambitions to offer Windows apps across multiple devices—computers, phones and tablets—might actually come true, (The “U” in UWP stands for “Universal,” after all.) Microsoft clearly knows UWP is a long shot, which is why it’s working on strategies to make standard Win32s apps run on Windows tablets.

Apple had similar goals around revenue and adoption of services that worked across MacOS and iOS, such as Handoff and iCloud, when it introduced its Mac App Store in OS X Lion six years ago. Apple did not have to worry about transitioning users and developers from one type of app to another; Mac App Store apps and off-the-shelf-apps are the same, unlike legacy and UWP Windows apps.

Still, even today not many mainstay Mac apps are there. Developers didn’t want to pay Apple a cut (though they were fine in paying retailers a larger cut for physical sales), so most avoided the Mac App Store. Apple even tried to push Mac App Store adoption by limiting MacOS functionality such as autosave, document versions, iCloud Documents support, and some Handoff support to Mac App Store apps.

It didn’t work. The Mac App Store is mainly a home for free apps and apps from small software vendors who have no distribution channels of their own. It’s a nice supplement to traditional app sources, but no replacement.

Microsoft has even slimmer chances of making its Window Store work as the sole or main source of Windows apps. For one, Windows Store apps don’t work in Windows 7 or earlier, and though they should migrate to Windows 10, most still haven’t begun doing so. They can’t use Windows Store apps.

The failure of Windows 8 and Windows RT also gave users good reason to avoid the cost and effort of migrating to the new Microsoft app formats. (UWP is simply a new name for the Modern app style introduced in Windows 8 and RT.) Once burned, twice shy.

No wonder developers haven’t created many compelling UWP apps for the Windows Store. Why would they if they don’t have to?

Microsoft is likely hoping that the new Windows Store-only option in Windows 10 Creators Update will push developers into UWP development. But I’m very skeptical given Apple’s experience in doing something similar, especially when Apple had more going in its favor.