Dunce, Monkeyboy

29 May 2012

A little while ago, I wrote a piece about Apple, the App Stores, and the restrictions they place on developers. The main question was; would users be able to install software outside the official App Store? I suggested that Apple are unlikely to impose this restriction on OS X, for two reasons. Firstly, it would put OS X at a significant disadvantage compared to other desktop operating systems (most significantly, Windows), and secondly, they already have a very successful App Store only platform, namely iOS. However, another interesting development in this area has cropped up, and from an unexpected direction.

It has emerged that the upcoming new version of Microsoft’s free development tools, Visual Studio Express, will only support the development of Metro apps. There are two things at are significant about Metro in this context. Firstly, it only has access to a limited subset of the Windows API, making it in some ways closer to iOS than OS X. Secondly, and more significantly, Metro apps can only be installed from the Windows App Store1, which requires (as with Apple’s stores) a paid developer account.

This is an interesting move on Microsoft’s part, and (as the title may suggest), I don’t think it’s a smart one. Granted, the strategy has worked well for Apple on iOS, but that was starting from a clean slate. Microsoft’s situation is very different; they’re trying to move their existing platform from an open to a curated model (while simultaneously moving to a pared down UI). If they want users to make the switch, they’ll need a healthy software ecosystem on the new platform, which in turn means they need to court developers.

As a company, Microsoft has long had a reputation for encouraging and supporting developers (their CEO is noted for his quiet enthusiasm on the matter). However, this move seems to be something of a slap in the face, at the very time they’re asking developers to stick their necks out and commit to a new, untested platform. This won’t affect the big guys much - they’re already paying to be in the developer program, and for the Professional versions of Visual Studio - but it hits right at the heart of the small-scale developers that are such a large part of the success of iOS. It’s had to see it as anything other than a colossal own goal.

However, I don’t use Windows at home, and at work it’s mainly there to run SSH and VNC. I don’t really have any stake in the success or failure of the platform. The question I’m interested in is: what does this mean for the Mac App Store? Will Microsoft’s move embolden Apple to lock down OS X and ban third-party installation2?

I think the answer is no. My original reasoning stands; given that they’re very definitely keeping iOS and OS X as distinct systems (albeit with a fair degree of cross-pollination in terms of features and UI), there’s no need to impose the same limits on each. In this regard, they can have their cake and eat it. It may even further spur their growth in the PC market, if Microsoft press ahead with their developer-hostile policy. However, if I’m wrong, and the move succeeds in fostering Metro growth without alienating the Windows developer community, Apple might be encouraged to follow suit. We’ve certainly not seen the last move in this game.

Update: It seems that Microsoft has relented, and there will be a version of Visual Studio Express that targets non-Metro applications. This is a very sensible move, and shows a commendably responsive attitiude on Microsoft’s part. It’s easy to talk the developer-relations talk, but they appear to be genuinely ealking the walk as well, at least in this instance.

  1. For consumers, at least; enterprise versions of Windows 8 permit side loading of apps. However, this is intended for internal or bespoke apps, or those sold in large business-to-business contracts, and in any case isn’t an option on the consumer and small business versions of Windows. [back]

  2. Note that I don’t believe that the Gatekeeper feature in Mountain Lion is a move in this direction. For one thing, the user can opt out. More importantly, it represents Apple making a conscious effort to extend some of the security benefits of the curated model to third parties. If they were planning to funnel everyone towards the App Store, it would have made more sense to do nothing. [back]

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