Windows Store has enough apps to prevent Windows RT flop, say analysts

But Microsoft must boost the number of high-quality tablet apps to make its bet pay off

The apps for Microsoft's new Windows operating systems are good enough to entice early buyers of tablets and other touch devices, analysts said Sunday.

But the jury remains out on Microsoft's long-term chances of winning its unprecedented bet on Windows 8 and the spin-off, Windows RT.

"This gives them a shot at success," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, in an interview. "It's a positive first showing, but they must have consistent singles, doubles, triples and home runs."

Moorhead was one of the analysts who spoke out most persistently about the criticality of the Windows Store and its apps to the success of Windows 8 overall, but more importantly, to Windows RT, the offspring designed for tablets. He repeatedly predicted that Microsoft had to have at least 5,000 high-quality apps in the Windows Store at launch to have a shot at selling Windows RT, and thus the devices it powers, to consumers this year.

The Surface RT reached retail last Friday.

According to Wes Miller, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, the Windows Store had just over 9,000 apps as of Oct. 26, nearly 5,200 of which are available to U.S. customers. Miller has been tracking the number of apps in the Windows Store since mid-August, and posts results to his WinAppUpdate website weekly.

But even though it would be a very long stretch to call each of the 5,200 U.S. apps "high quality," Moorhead and Miller agreed that the store's stock was sufficient at launch, and more than enough to prevent an outright flop.

"They delivered tremendously more on Day One than HP and RIM," Moorhead said, referring to the 2011 launches of Hewlett-Packard's TouchPad and RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook. Those tablets' failures, Moorhead has argued, could be traced to a lack of high-quality apps and a weak app store. "History shows that for consumers, the first impression is the one that sticks," Moorhead said in mid-September.

He had made the point that if Microsoft didn't have a strong, deep inventory at Windows RT's launch, tablets running it, including the Surface, would be passed over by consumers.

"[The Windows Store] is not where it needs to be for a global app ecosystem, but it has improved over the last couple of weeks," said Moorhead, pointing to apps from Hulu and Netflix that just recently appeared in the store.

"There will be more apps," he maintained, but added the caveat that that faith will be in the eyes of the beholder. "If you trust Microsoft, then you will trust them to make it right. But if you think Microsoft is somehow bad, then you're not going to trust them," Moorhead said.

Miller echoed Moorhead's assessment of the Windows Store as it exists now, and cited the Hulu, Netflix and Kindle apps as examples of solid last-minute additions.

"Right now, there is a decent quantity of apps to kick-start the platform, and I think, as long as a consumer has modest expectations of Windows RT and the Surface RT outside of Web browsing, email and the collection of apps that are there, then they'll be happy," said Miller in an email reply to questions.

Not everyone agreed.

While the overwhelming majority of the reviewers who examined the Surface RT last week waxed poetic about the hardware and its premium look-and-feel, most criticized the weak app selection in the Windows Store, the Microsoft-curated e-market that is the sole source of software for the "Modern" (formerly known as "Metro") user interface.

"In short, there just aren't enough apps," said Mathew Honan of Wired on Oct. 23.

"There are rough edges to the Surface," wrote Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal. "The biggest is a paucity of apps for the new touch interface."

"The Windows Store inventory is alarmingly short of high-profile apps," chimed in Jon Phillips of PCWorld, which like Computerworld is owned by IDG.

Moorhead said the reviews were a "fair assessment" of the situation, but added, "They're only a snapshot in time. We all know that Microsoft will improve [the app inventory]."

Because the Windows Store, like rivals from Apple and Google, is a moving target, Moorhead and Miller both warned that their current appraisal was only that.

"Microsoft placed a wager, built a device, built an operating system (or three), and asked developers to take a chance on them," Miller said. "It seems to be starting -- but time will tell how much of a virtuous cycle between developers and consumers gets started in the Windows Store."

"I really think it's too early to call," agreed Moorhead, adding that it may be months before outsiders can get a grip on how well Windows RT and its hardware are doing.

Moves by major third-party developers would help. There have been no signs of Modern apps from Facebook, for instance, or Twitter -- although independent Twitter apps such as MetroTwit, are available -- or LinkedIn.

"There's no doubt that the hardware is high-quality," said Moorhead. "But Microsoft needs to seal the deal with consumers by improving [the app selection]."

See more Computerworld Windows 8 launch coverage including news, reviews and blogs.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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