Workplace

Windows 11’s biggest change: Microsoft is reinventing the app store

Fewer rules, fewer commissions, more ways for apps to work. And a pointed message to Apple.

New Windows interface

Much of Windows 11 is just a modernization of the operating system, with softer, rounder designs and a cleaner overall interface.

Photo: Microsoft

Not that long ago, Microsoft was calling Windows 10 "the last version of Windows." Technically, that wasn't true: The company launched Windows 11 on Thursday. But while this may be called Windows and still look like Windows and still run Windows apps (OK, yeah, it's still Windows), it's clear that Microsoft is steering its operating system in a new direction.

Microsoft's Satya Nadella framed Windows 11 as a broad rethinking of what Windows can be. "It's the beginning of a new generation," he said, including everything from the OS to the store to the browser. "This is the first version of a new era for Windows." Inside Microsoft, the underlying mantra of that generation seems to be a single word: connection. If someone's PC is their main machine, the powerhouse around which their computing lives orbit, Microsoft wants to make Windows into a better hub. That means improving connections between devices, connections between users across platforms and connections between developers and users.

Much of Windows 11 is just a modernization of the operating system, with softer, rounder designs and a cleaner overall interface. (Though users won't have to dig too far to get to those old-looking interfaces, an unfortunate side effect of Microsoft's commitment to legacy support.) It integrates Teams, and communication in general, deeply across the OS. It comes with lots of performance benefits, like smaller updates and better search. Widgets and feeds make multitasking easier, and a customizable feed surfaces more information more quickly. It's meant to be lighter and faster, in part to take on Chrome OS devices that have eaten Windows's market share in recent years.

But if there's one feature that has the potential for true industry-shaking impact, it's the new Microsoft Store. Almost any app that will run on Windows is now welcome in the store, regardless of how it's compiled or created. Developers don't have to use Microsoft's payment tools; they can choose how their app is updated; they can host their app any way they want to. Microsoft is adding some curation and editorial content, but relinquishing almost all control of the apps in the store. It's a total inversion of the app store model, swapping a carefully-curated, walled garden for a pure discovery engine.

Here's just how crazy this gets: Microsoft is also bringing Android apps to Windows, through the Amazon App Store, which is in the Windows Store. Users will be able to use a Microsoft Store to download an Amazon Store to download Google apps onto their Microsoft devices. Not long ago, every bit of that would have seemed impossible. "We want you to be able to bring any technology, the technology you love, to the store," Chief Product Officer Panos Panay said. "Whether you've already built it, or are building it now."

The new version of the Store resembles the new ideals of Microsoft.Photo: Microsoft

This new version of the Windows Store, drastically more open and functional, is emblematic of the new Microsoft in general. For decades, Microsoft used its power to force everyone to operate in The Microsoft Way. Even as mobile left Windows behind, the company tried to coerce developers to build universal apps using Microsoft tech, Microsoft APIs and for Microsoft devices. Epic's Tim Sweeney called the Universal Windows Platform "the first apparent step towards locking down the consumer PC ecosystem and monopolising app distribution and commerce."

The Windows Store didn't really catch on. Most popular apps never showed up in the store, with developers opting to continue to go direct in order to keep all the money and customer data. Over time, Microsoft added movies, music and TV shows to the store, combined it with some Xbox content and rebranded it the Microsoft Store, stopped selling music, and in general just could never find a way to make the store a hit. Integrating Xbox games into the Microsoft Store helped, but only slightly.

Over the last few years, though, Microsoft's tone has changed. Nadella told Wired in 2019 that "the operating system is no longer the most important layer for us," and has said repeatedly that cloud computing is the foundation of everything Microsoft does. Microsoft's goal is to get people using Microsoft's hardware and software, while acknowledging that the world is and will always be larger than Microsoft.

Most recently, the store has been Microsoft's weapon in Apple's antitrust fight. Last year, Microsoft published its "10 app store principles to promote choice, fairness and innovation," which amounted to one long subtweet of Apple's app review guidelines. Then, in April, as Apple was preparing to argue that the App Store's 30% commission was an industry standard, Microsoft announced it was cutting its commission on PC games to 12%. That put pressure on gaming competitors like Valve, of course, but also made Apple's arguments more complicated. Now, the new Microsoft Store offers a radically different way of thinking about apps, and regulators will surely notice.

The most important outstanding question, of course, is whether Microsoft can convince developers to care. The company's recent history is littered with new products that died on the vine for lack of app support. Too few developers bought into Windows Phone, or signed up to make those UWP apps, or even put their apps in the Microsoft Store. There's some early good news on that front: Microsoft showed off Adobe's Creative Cloud and Document Cloud apps in the new store, and Zoom, Disney+ and other apps are in there as well. But while Microsoft has certainly made the proposition more appealing by lowering the barrier to entry, good ideas and intentions don't add up to much if developers don't care. People go where the apps are.

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