Microsoft Desperately Needs to Figure Out How to Be Cool

Sunday

At Microsoft’s Build conference, the dorkiest of companies put on a big show, complete with fog machines and fancy lights, in order to show it’s a cool competitor to Apple and Google. The speakers who came on stage during keynotes had stylish hair. “Do they have dressers backstage?” an attendee asked a group of us when it was all over.

Build exists to get developers excited. The biggest devs blow upwards of $2000 for a three-day pass to the event, where they have unlimited drinks, plentiful meals, and access to Microsoft’s best and brightest. Part of Microsoft’s wooing process involves appearing “hip” to a group of developers who resemble the cast of Silicon Valley in all the worst ways. Hence the light show and Microsoft EVP Terry Myerson’s questionable hoodie and leather vest combo. It wants these devs so amped that they’ll rush back to their MacBook Airs and Surface Books to crank out brilliant software, hopefully for Microsoft’s Windows Store, which has just one third of the apps of much cooler stores from Google and Apple.

With the arrival of Windows 10 S, which can only use apps from the Windows Store, the app marketplace has never been more important than today. Yet time after time over the course of the event, Microsoft dropped the ball on its pitch to developers in favor of niche distractions.


Apple’s a monolith of money and users, and thanks to Android and Chrome OS, Google is right there with it. Both have OS platforms with heavily used app stores. They’ve built customer bases of hungry fans that enthusiastically embrace their hardware and software products, and consequently, developers want to build apps that work with Apple and Google platforms.

Microsoft, on the other hand, can’t seem to ditch the buttoned-up association it’s developed for making the work computer you don’t want to use. Its reputation is seemingly forever cemented by those old Mac vs PC commercials. Attempts to rewrite the script have been met with mixed success. On the hardware side, Microsoft has become a genuine player in the field of coveted kit. The Surface Pro and Studio are ambitious devices that are legitimately exciting. The Surface Laptop announced earlier this month is one of the most interesting products announced so far this year.

But Microsoft’s software landscape is still dorktown and one of the big ways Microsoft’s attempting to undorkify things is by leaning into the Windows Store. There’s a problem though. Microsoft’s app store in uncommonly small compared to the other guys. According to Microsoft, in 2015 there were just 669,000 apps available. (The company hasn’t officially updated that number since.) According to Statista Apple and Google both have more than three times that number of apps available in their stores.

The number of available apps alone doesn’t necessarily dictate the quality of someone’s computing experience, but it remains a common metric for success, and if Microsoft wants to look cooler in the software space, it needs a big awesome app store full of big awesome apps.


Microsoft stunned the audience of Build when it announced iTunes was coming to the store just a week after announcing Spotify’s arrival. Those are two hugely important apps, and you could feel the energy in the keynote after the announcement. Developers and press looked at one another, baffled and delighted. An Apple app would appear in the Windows Store!

Then Microsoft immediately squandered that excitement. The rest of the focus both on stage and later in the “Hub,” the primary showroom for the conference, wasn’t on the cool apps traditional users might want, but on the deeply nerdy niche stuff.

During the keynote itself, Microsoft glossed over the lifestyle apps to focus on Autodesk and Linux. Autodesk was up on stage to announce that Autodesk Stingray was headed to the store. Stingray is an engine used to build things in 3D and is almost exclusively used by 3D artists and engineers. After that announcement, Microsoft followed up with the news that Linux was coming to the store. If you’re excited about the Linux distributions Ubuntu, Suse, and Fedora arriving to the Windows Store, know you’re uncommon. It’s big news for developers, but meaningless to people who would normally seek out apps on an app store in the first place.

Site of the Build keynote. There are lots of blue lights and…fog?

Given Microsoft’s enthusiasm for the store, it was weird that the company’s newly announced operating system, Windows 10 S, which can only get apps through the store, was mostly absent from the conference, apart from a few mentions during the keynote. You couldn’t find it anywhere on the show floor, where developers mingle with Microsoft personnel.

Nerd city.

The Store booth had a lone TV screen with a rep standing in front of it — and that rep had not been briefed on Windows 10 S. In fact, it seemed no one had. Every Microsoft rep I asked seemed bewildered by Windows 10 S questions. They could say it was “exciting” but they had no spiel ready for why it was exciting, nor why the Store was crucial to its success.

And no one could explain what, fundamentally, might have changed about the Windows Store to make it an appealing avenue for app launches after a five years of sluggish adoption. Even app developers that were bullish about the platform were frustratingly vague about what was different now compared to when the Store launched in 2012, and why Windows 10 S would not go the way of its failed store-focused predecessors Windows RT and Windows 8.1 with Bing.

Christoph Teschner and Michael Simmons were positively giddy about Windows 10 S when I sat down with them in a high-rise hotel near the conference. Both men are employees of Algoriddim, and were in Seattle because their app, DJay Pro, had just received the App Creator of the Year award.

“I think that’s the future,” Simmons said of the Windows App store.

Teschner pointed to his own youth, growing up with Apple’s app stores for Mac and iOS and how it had prepared him for the Windows Store. “People are used to app stores now,” he said. “It felt sort of natural to me when I first got my Windows Store.”

Though they were reluctant to give exact numbers or concrete evidence of a successful Windows Store launch, Simmons said “Windows fulfilled our expectations.” He praised the development process in particular. “Seeing developer tools ten years ago, it’s a total leap today. It’s an evolution and we’re in the middle of it.”

Neither man could give a concrete reason for why they felt Windows 10 S had a chance to succeed when its predecessors failed so badly, but sitting in a room and soaking up their optimism it was hard not to be swayed a little.

And it’s that kind of optimism for app developers that Microsoft will need if it hopes to actually fill the Store with cool apps. If those men had been on the show floor, showing off their app and talking up their own experiences with developing for the Store, Build might have actually projected the image Microsoft desperately needs. But Microsoft is still figuring it out. It has ditched the pocket protector, but it’s still not cool.

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