Microsoft had a dream with Windows 8 that involved universal Windows apps that would span across phones, tablets, PCs, and even Xbox consoles. The plan was that app developers could write a single app for all of these devices, and it would magically span across them all. This dream really started to fall apart after Windows Phone failed, but it’s well and truly over now.
Microsoft has spent years pushing developers to create special apps for the company’s Universal Windows Platform (UWP), and today, it’s putting the final nail in the UWP coffin. Microsoft is finally allowing game developers to bring full native Win32 games to the Microsoft Store, meaning the many games that developers publish on popular stores like Steam don’t have to be rebuilt for UWP.
“We recognize that Win32 is the app format that game developers love to use and gamers love to play, so we are excited to share that we will be enabling full support for native Win32 games to the Microsoft Store on Windows,” explains Microsoft’s gaming chief Phil Spencer. “This will unlock more options for developers and gamers alike, allowing for the customization and control they’ve come to expect from the open Windows gaming ecosystem.”
This is a big shift for Microsoft’s Windows app store, particularly because games are one of the most popular forms of apps that are downloaded from app stores. Previously, developers were forced to publish games for Windows 10 through the Universal Windows Platform, which simply doesn’t have the same level of customization that game developers have come to expect from Windows over the years.
The writing has been on the wall for UWP for months now. Microsoft recently revealed its effort to switch the company’s Edge browser to Chromium and away from UWP to make it available on Windows 7, Windows 8, and macOS. Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore admitted in an interview with The Verge earlier this month that UWP was a “headwind” for Edge. “It’s not that UWP is bad, but UWP is not a 35-year-old mature platform that a ridiculously huge amount of apps have been written to,” Belfiore said at the time.
I’ve heard many stories of Microsoft engineers and developers complaining about UWP putting restrictions on their own apps, and third-party app developers have often had to make a choice between creating a UWP app for Windows 10 or a traditional desktop app that will run across Windows 7, Windows 8, and Windows 10. Microsoft has steadily expanded its definition of UWP to allow developers to repackage desktop apps into the Microsoft Store, but the original vision was for new style apps (think back to Windows 8) that would run across PCs, phones, tablets, the Xbox, and HoloLens. With the death of Windows Phone, that original plan for UWP looked unlikely to work out.
Microsoft even recently put its touch-friendly UWP versions of Office on hold, preferring to focus on the web, iOS, Android, and its desktop apps instead. Office was always the centerpiece for UWP and a good example of how to build a more demanding app on Microsoft’s new platform.
Microsoft is finally listening to app and game developers and not trying to force UWP on them anymore. “You’ve told us that you would like us to continue to decouple many parts of the Universal Windows Platform so that you can adopt them incrementally,” explained Kevin Gallo, Microsoft’s Windows developer platform chief, earlier this month. This means developers will be able to adopt some of the good parts of UWP over time. In a separate interview with ZDNet, Gallo revealed, “by the time we are done, everything will just be called ‘Windows apps.’” Microsoft isn’t there just yet, but it’s aiming to make every UWP feature available to all developers.
Ultimately, this is good news for both developers and Windows users. We might now start to see more games in the Microsoft Store that work how PC gamers expect them to and hopefully more apps. The Windows Store has been full of junk over the years, and Microsoft has had a hard time attracting developers. Microsoft’s new approach even impressed Epic CEO Tim Sweeney earlier this year.
Microsoft’s previous walled garden approach to the store generated fierce criticism from Sweeney. He wasn’t happy that Microsoft was building a closed platform within Windows 10, and he protested the company’s attempts to force developers to distribute these apps through the Microsoft Store. Microsoft even created S Mode versions of Windows and a Windows RT operating system that were locked to store apps by default.
The backing of Sweeney and Microsoft’s new move to bring more of its own games to Steam are good signs that Spencer is changing more than just the Xbox console inside of Microsoft. Now, we’ll have to wait to see what app and game developers do this time around with a Microsoft Store and Windows app platform that’s a lot less restricted.