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Universal Windows apps have a universal problem

If universal apps can run on any device, but nobody develops them, are they really universal?

This “if a tree falls in the forest” situation threatens to derail Microsoft’s grand vision for Windows 10, and it has pitted the company’s current and former CEOs against each other.

As Jack Madden explains in this month’s Modern Mobility Deep Dive column, Microsoft’s Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps can run on any Windows 10 device, from PCs to tablets to smartphones—and, in the future, the Xbox entertainment console and the HoloLens augmented reality headset. Much like responsive-design websites, these universal apps automatically detect the device type and adjust to its screen size and user interface.

Microsoft’s goals are to simplify the experience of using multiple devices and, of course, to attract more customers to its devices. If you can run all your Windows 10 PC apps on your mobile devices, that’s a pretty strong value proposition.

The problem is you can’t run all your Windows 10 PC apps on your mobile devices. Most are legacy apps developed solely for PCs, not using the UWP frameworks. And that may not change anytime soon. Microsoft’s mobile devices have significantly less market share than Apple iOS- and Google Android-based devices, so developers don’t have much incentive to build apps for them.

A lack of apps is a problem that has plagued Microsoft’s app store from the very beginning, dating back to when Steve Ballmer was CEO. But now, almost two years after leaving the company, the Los Angeles Clippers owner has a solution: Like BlackBerry, which also has a hard time attracting developers, Microsoft should allow its phones to run Android apps, he told Bloomberg last month.

Ballmer’s strategy would help address the app gap problem, but it would make Windows 10 more of a commodity play in the mobile market. And although recent versions of the Surface Pro and the new Surface Book have generated substantial buzz, there’s no evidence that Microsoft can produce a standout smartphone to differentiate itself from all the Android models out there.

For his part, current CEO Satya Nadella says the ability to write one app and run it on any device type will attract UWP developers. That hasn’t happened, but it’s still early days for Windows 10. The operating system is steadily gaining traction in the PC market, and as it continues to do so, developers may start to pay closer attention.

If not, the universal Windows apps tree will fall, and it won’t make a sound.

This post originally appeared in the January issue of the Modern Mobility e-zine.