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Microsoft's Universal Windows Platform? It's an uphill battle, warns key partner

'The reason to build a UWP app gets smaller and smaller'

Keeping pace with Microsoft's ever-changing developer story has not been easy. Just ask Infragistics exec Jason Beres, Senior VP Development Tools.

I spoke to Beres at Gartner's recent London event on Application Architecture, Development and Integration.

Infragistics sells developer tools and components and is a veteran Microsoft partner whose origins go back to the days of 16-bit Visual Basic and its VBX extensions. Although the company now makes tools for iOS, Android and web as well as for Windows, Beres told me that the customer base remains Microsoft-centric. The concept of buying pre-built components such as charts and grids to insert into your application remains stronger in the Visual Studio world than outside it.

Infragistics invested heavily in Silverlight components back when that was the key strategy, only to see it sidelined in 2010 when the Windows 8 project was getting under way. Another disappointing project was Visual Studio LightSwitch, one of Microsoft's many attempts to create a rapid application development tool usable by non-specialists, but which never caught on.

What about the Universal Windows Platform (UWP), introduced with Windows 10 with the promise that developers can write an application that runs everywhere Windows runs, subject to device constraints?

"It's an uphill battle for Microsoft," Beres told me. "The reason to build a UWP app gets smaller and smaller. The Store in Windows 10 becomes almost an irrelevant icon that you remove. They don’t have adoption on phones. So the players in the space are iOS, Android and a hybrid experience.

"If I’m building an Xbox application, a HoloLens application, UWP is actually pretty cool. But even on a desktop, WPF has higher performance, it has more features, it has a bigger ecosystem, it has more stability than UWP."

The odd thing is that although UWP remains prominent in Microsoft's development platform, it is overshadowed by another strategy, which is to support any device on any platform in order to promote its cloud services, Azure and Office 365.

"They are de-emphasising the need for a UWP mobility story, because it’s a small piece of the market, and it will continue to be, unless something really compelling happens, that Microsoft does something with tablets or phones to drive developers," says Beres.

This alternative strategy is one that Beres is happy to embrace. "I’m pretty impressed with Microsoft, with their strategy and where they are going," he says. "The entire company from Microsoft Press, to Office, to Visual Studio, they are marching in the same direction and they are marching towards 'How do we integrate Azure into the enterprise experience?'. So all their tooling, everything they are talking about drives towards Azure."

Infragistics is now geared up for cross-platform components. "Anything new that we’ve built in the last four years we’ve architected for [code]translation. When you look for example at the charting for iOS, it is the same API and feature set as our WPF chart, as our JavaScript chart, as our Android chart, as our Windows Forms chart. We build everything once," Beres says.

According to Beres, the culture at Microsoft's head office in Redmond, near Seattle, has changed profoundly. Whereas four or five years ago everyone had Windows Phones – now Macs, iPhones and Android are commonplace.

The difficulty is that Windows remains a large part of Microsoft's business, and UWP was meant to re-invigorate Windows as a development platform. Microsoft's extraordinary upgrade push for Windows 10 suggests that extending the installed base that can run UWP applications is a high priority, but without the mobile element the platform is not compelling.

Following its acquisition of Xamarin earlier in 2016 – which brought .NET compilers for Mac, iOS and Android – you can expect Microsoft to talk less about UWP and more about a true universal platform. This is unknown territory for Microsoft, though, and the risk is that as Windows shrinks so too will the company's ability to promote its other products and services. ®

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