Which Comes First – The Bad Reviews or the Developer Apathy?

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SurfaceI've seen a lot of stories written by various media outlets that are quick to point out the failings of the Microsoft Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 ecosystems. It used to be that the major cause of frustration was poor quality devices and manufacturer bloatware causing Microsoft's best intentions to wither on the vine with poor sales. Lately however its the lack of quality apps in the Windows 8 Store and Windows Phone 8 store that have people up in arms. But is the fervor with which the media likes to kick the once mighty Microsoft actually causing the lack of apps?

I've been using Microsoft Windows based devices since the first Cassiopeia A-11 clamshell. In those early days Microsoft was struggling with how to jam the window and start based metaphors that users were so familiar with into an often ill fitting user experience. Even when they started to get things worked out in the Windows Mobile 6-ish time frame, the manufacturers themselves tended to hose things up with their own terrible UI shells and useless battery draining utilities. Microsoft was once content to watch their software be mutilated and mangled by OEMs hoping to differentiate their devices while trying to use the same basic operating system, with Microsoft getting the blame. But those days it would seem are over.

Recently Microsoft made a fairly bold move by stepping into the device fray with their own hardware in the Surface RT. If you ask just about anybody who owns one of these devices you'll hear how fantastic the hardware is. A user review on CNET proclaimed "It is amazing, and makes my iPad feel kinda old." Anecdotally  I can tell you I haven't met anybody who isn't fairly impressed with the hardware, from the amazing battery life to the rock solid build quality. The same can be said for the Nokia Lumia 920 phone with its impressive camera features and overall usability. Although the Nokia phone doesn't wear the Microsoft badge, few could argue that the phones weren't strongly influenced by Redmond and it's firm grip on the user experience for Windows Phone 8.

In spite of the hardware device kudo's no review that I have read in all this time has resisted the urge to take a swat at the Windows 8 Store and the Windows Phone 8 app ecosystem, and perhaps rightly so. Given the broad based support for the Apple App Store and the Google's Play store it's hard for any late entry to be viewed favorably, but Microsoft hasn't made it an easier for themselves with the quality of the apps that ship on the device. And so in review after review, Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 devices are cast as near-misses to consumers; good hardware but you'd better wait to buy until some undisclosed day in the future when the apps come rolling in. It's hard to say with Microsoft not producing actual sales results how this has affected overall sales of the devices, but you don't have to be a financial scholar to know that these sort of reviews haven't helped matters much.

So as a developer we're left with the sense that our efforts to create a Windows 8 version of an app will be wasted on a consumer base that isn't there. This is in spite of Microsoft's new head of Windows Tami Reller's assurances that Windows 8 is selling on par with the extremely popular Windows 7. It's now become "pragmatic" or outright cool to announce that you won't be bothering to support Windows devices, similar to Google pulling support for products like GMail and Google Drive. This of course just lends more fuel for those analysts who make their living calling for the death of Windows which further affects the consumer landscape for the devices. It seems that a vicious cycle has been created where the only thing that keeps the Windows devices from being fantastic are the lack of apps so consumers shouldn't buy them, and since consumers aren't clearly buying the devices with the same foaming at the mouth passion that iPhone buyers show developers don't want to waste time writing apps for them.

Whether this vicious cycle will be broken by some tipping point being reached in the Windows 8 ecosystem, or by the utter failure of Microsoft's hardware efforts is yet to be seen. Microsoft themselves have a big part to play in this by improving the apps that come with the Surface devices as well as Office 2013 for tablet use. But more than any other group, the success of Microsoft's hardware will depend on developers to pull it through the next decade. But maybe, just maybe if the media get off Microsoft's back and refrain from click-inducing hyperbole for just a little while they could actually be successful. But hey, did you hear that Windows 8 actually takes up room on the hard drive of the Surface Pro! Those bastards!

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Paul Ballard

Paul Ballard is a Chief Architect specializing in large scale distributed system development and enterprise software processes. Paul has more than twenty years of development experience including being a former Microsoft MVP, a speaker at technical conferences such as Microsoft Tech-Ed and VSLive, and a published author. Prior to working on the Windows platform, he built software using a vast array of technologies including Java, Unix, C, and even OS/2.