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Universal apps is the future of Windows development

Simon Bisson | Oct. 20, 2014
We've called them Metro apps, then when a lawsuit meant that Microsoft couldn't use the name, we called them Modern or Windows Store apps. But now they've finally got a new official name, and it looks like it's one that's going to stick. Let's give a big welcome, then, to the Universal app. They're going to be big. That's because, as Terry Myerson and Joe Belfiore made very clear at the Windows 190 unveiling, with the expansion of WinRT APIs and support for windowed WinRT apps on the desktop, Universal apps are the future of Windows development.

I recently sat down with Microsoft's Kevin Gallo, Partner Director of Program Management, to talk about the first six months of Universal apps - and about where Microsoft is taking the technology, in light of its Windows 10 announcements.

There aren't many Universal apps in the various Windows Stores yet. That shouldn't be a surprise, as Gallo pointed out "People's code takes time to evolve." The technology is still relatively new, and many developers have yet to upgrade to the latest versions of Visual Studio - or have to support older operating system releases.

A key element of the future of Universal apps is the ability to share controls between user experiences, as Gallo notes, "We've not got all the controls yet, more are coming in Windows 10. Not all controls look the same across the platform; like the calendar control. We're fine-tuning the designs, making a family of design. It needs to be the best on that device." The goal is for a developer to share the most of the controls between different user experiences. One solution is for apps to use adaptive layouts, which is where support for WinRT's HTML5 JavaScript/CSS UI tools comes in, using the WinJS libraries in conjunction with responsive design.

So how will Universal apps evolve in Windows 10? Galllo unsurprisingly remains close-lipped about details, noting that the approach Microsoft is taking is evolutionary, "Our goal will be to do better automatic and adaptive layout, making it a natural on-ramp." That's going to require more work on the tool side of the story, with support for what Gallo calls "Universal Projects", as well as tools that will allow user experiences to be tuned for different device form factors.

Getting UX right for different form factors is an interesting problem: a phone is used differently from a phablet, which isn't the same as an 8-inch tablet in portrait mode. Then there's the differences between different tablet screens, aspect ratios, and whether they're hybrid two-in-one devices. Developers building apps that cross all these scenarios are going to need all the help Microsoft can give them (and that's before they start working with Kinect voice-driven Xbox apps).

Gallo points out that much of making apps work across multiple form factors is about getting inputs right. Are you developing for touch, for mouse and keyboard, or for speech, or even pen? Windows 8.1 includes the option to support dual inputs, using the current interaction mode to define how apps respond to user input. That means user actions and app controls need to be closely linked, so you get the best support for multi-modal devices. There's no way to predict just how a user will interact with a universal app - or what type of computer they might be using. Apps will need to handle all possible input modes, so support will need to be built into the controls Microsoft (and its partners) ships.


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