July 30, 2013, 9:23 PM — More than nine months into the great revamping known as Windows 8, a clear vision of its core is finally starting to emerge. The baked-in apps have been streamlined and Windows 8.1 looms, ready to polish the numerous rough edges found in the original release of the operating system. But Microsoft alone can't improve what is truly the beating heart of Windows 8: The Windows Store.
Windows 8 revolves around the Windows Store. Every Live Tile that glimmers on the modern-style Start screen is the iconic representation of a Windows 8 app--and you can only snag Windows 8 apps in Microsoft's own Windows Store. As the Windows Store goes, so goes the Windows 8 experience.
How, exactly, is the Windows Store doing? The obvious indicators are mixed. Windows RT devices can run only modern-style apps, not desktop apps, and they're tanking hard. But app submissions picked up steam around the time of Microsoft's Build conference, culminating in the shattering of the 100,000-app barrier in early July, and they're still going (relatively) strong.
That's a great milestone for Microsoft, but it's still paltry compared to the approximately 1 million apps in Google Play and 900,000 apps in Apple's App Store. So it's a good time to take the pulse of the Windows Store again: Is 100,000 apps enough to keep a body happy? As I did last February, I spent days scouring the Windows Store and taking notes in five major categories: games, music apps, video apps, social apps, and a catch-all "other" category--to see how well Microsoft covered each. Here's how they all measured up.
In my original Windows Store evaluation, I noted that the game selection was an early highlight--and it has only gotten stronger since February. The number of available apps has tripled in that time. While the roughly 13,500 available games don't hold a candle to the vast Android and iOS libraries, there is more than enough to keep you distracted for months to come. A lot of them are ports from other platforms, but, hey, they play just as nicely on Windows.
In fact, they play so nicely that we've had two separate roundups of killer Windows 8 games, with very little overlap. If you open the Games tab in the Windows Store and sort by "noteworthy," you'll find dozens and dozens of high-quality titles. (I've been playing Royal Revolt nonstop recently.) Microsoft Studios in particular has released a bevy of bodacious games like Pinball FX2, Hydro Thunder Hurricane, and The Gunstringer.
Speaking of which, two games from Microsoft Studios--Skulls of the Shogun and Halo: Spartan Assault--aren't just a blast--they're also far-reaching, letting you play with gamers on Windows Phone and Xbox Live as well as with fellow Windows Store shoppers. That sort of cross-platform experience is an exciting tease of the potential of Windows 8 gaming in a One Microsoft kind of world. Here's hoping it continues.
That's not to say that all is well in Winny's world, however. As mentioned, while the Windows Store game selection is impressive, it can't compare to the selections for iOS or Android--you won't find any mobile Walking Dead games or Grand Theft Auto ports here.
More troubling, the Games section, like much of the Windows Store, is filling with rip-off apps designed to trick you into thinking they're the real deal--such as Sonic's Ring Challenge - Bomb Dodger and Pac Pac Man. Microsoft actually highlights that last app as one of the top free apps in its Spotlight section. The official Pac-Man Championship Edition DX, a $10 app, is not featured.
Still, if you're mindful of what you're downloading, you'll find a lot to like in the Windows Store's Games section. (And to be honest, Pac Pac Man is pretty decent.)
The same general theme applies to the Windows Store's selection of video apps: It's not anywhere near as comprehensive as iOS's or Android's, but most people will find all they need within Microsoft's modern-styled walls.
Netflix and Hulu Plus were two of the earliest entries in the Windows Store, where they were joined by Vimeo, Dailymotion, Flixster, TED Talks, and a handful of apps from individual television stations like Nick and Discovery Channel. (Note that as an app, Hulu Plus requires a subscription to use; you'll need to dive into your browser if you want to catch free flicks.)
Beyond those stalwarts, only a handful of notable streaming-video apps have been added since February, though the additions have been of fairly high quality. Vevo's music-video service landed on Windows 8 recently, as did Sony's Crackle, which freely streams many older movies and TV shows. Sports buffs can now tune in to baseball games via the MLB.tv app.
Amazon Instant Video and YouTube are still glaring in their absence, but there's a cheat for that: Internet Explorer 10's streamlined interface is superb for streaming video. A plethora of third-party YouTube watchers are also available, and some of them function even better than the official YouTube apps. (I personally prefer Hyper for YouTube; YouTube Touch or YouTube+ are also solid options.)
Don't dig subscriptions? Apps for Plex and PowerDVD will scratch your personal-video-collection itch, while the baked-in Video app offers both local playback options and premium digital video downloads (its interface is kind of meh, though). I also have high hopes for the VLC media player app slated to land in the Windows Store soon. If it's anywhere near as terrific as the desktop version, life will be good for Windows tablet owners. Until then, be wary of rip-off apps designed to look like VLC or Windows Media Player.
The "little extras" are the major stumbling block for the Windows Store. A handy-dandy Redbox app just turned up, but you still won't find apps for, say, HBO Go, Comcast, Verizon, or the dozens of other niche services out there. If you use them, you'll miss them, but if you stick mostly to major apps, the Windows Store gets two thumbs-up--especially if you don't mind resorting to IE10 to fill in the blanks.
The Windows Store's music app selection, on the other hand, hits all the wrong notes.
The center of Windows 8's aural experience revolves around the baked-in Music app. As the Video app does for videos, the Music app serves up playback capabilities for both local files and premium digital downloads. The Music app goes a step further, however, offering users 10 free hours of on-demand music streaming via Xbox Music Pass, or unlimited streaming if you feel like ponying up a $10 monthly fee.
Xbox Music Pass pales in comparison to most streaming music services, however--and most of the major streaming music services can't be found in the Windows Store. Slacker is present, and it rocks as hard as it always does, but you won't find Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, Soundcloud, MOG, or Last.fm, let alone the massively popular iTunes.
Worse, the modern version of IE10 can't help you here. Spotify refuses to play in it, and the controls on the Web apps that do work in-browser shrink to a minuscule, unusable size when you Snap the app to one side of the screen. And don't even try minimizing IE10 while you work if you want to bask in tunage, as Web apps go silent as soon as the modern version of the browser disappears from the screen.
Those limitations render streaming Web apps (like Pandora's nifty HTML5 app) useless in the modern interface, though the desktop version of IE10 streams just fine.
But if you aren't tied to the big-name streaming services, you can find plenty of apps capable of soothing your sonic needs at a base level. Beyond the Music app and Slacker, the premium-only Rhapsody offers millions of on-demand streaming tunes and digital downloads, while the Nokia Music+ app jams Pandora-esque radio stations. Prefer terrestrial tunes? Check out the TuneIn Radion and iHeartReadio apps. Shazam and Songza also put in an appearance, along with the aforementioned Vevo app.
Music options are there, but the fact that so many major streaming music services are complete no-shows cuts the Windows Store deep.
The Windows Store had zero big-name social apps at launch, and the social integration in the People app is no substitution for the real deal. Nine months in, the situation is only marginally improved, though official Facebook and Foursquare apps are slated to arrive on the platform at some unknown time in the future.
Until then, you'll have to make do with third-party social apps, many of which are more "miss" than "hit." Count 4th at Square, MINE for Facebook, MetroTwit, Tweetro, and Reddit with Redditting as highlights. (Unfortunately, the once-nifty FlipToast app is no longer available.) The rest of the social apps are a bit of a crapshoot: Many lack core functionality or are saddled with atrocious interfaces.
As far as first-party social apps go, there's StumbleUpon, Microsoft's own business-focused Yammer, and Twitter. That's it. Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Path, Instagram, Snapchat, and Vine have all yet to announce plans to come to Microsoft's fledgling ecosystem. You won't even find HootSuite or TweetDeck.
In a nutshell: Windows 8 users who love to get social need to get familiar with IE10 and the Web apps of their beloved networks--not with the Windows Store.
The glaring holes in the social and music categories sting, but the Windows Store's relative infancy is most obvious when it comes to the "other" things: The random, scattershot apps that fill ecosystem holes and niche needs alike.
Once again, the Windows Store has just enough to keep users from grabbing their pitchforks and screaming for blood. Magazine-style newsreaders abound, from Pulse to News Bento to Rockmelt and the impending Flipboard. Heck, news in general is covered fairly well, as are shopping and food (yay Cocktail Flow!). Readers can scratch their literary itch with apps from Nook, Kindle, Audible, and Comixology, as well as with a nifty Free Books app stuffed with classics.
There are some scattershot highlights, too. The Windows 8 ESPN app, with its ability to pin individual teams to the Start screen, flat-out rocks. The same goes with the Khan Academy app and the new OpenTable app. Microsoft itself offers several outstanding (but not quite killer) apps, such as Fresh Paint, Xbox SmartGlass, Blink Cliplets, and all the games and apps I mentioned before.
But--and you knew there was a but coming--most "other" categories don't have more than one or two decent apps, and I'm not just talking about a few glaring Windows Store no-shows.
There's a Bank of America app, but few other financial institutions call the Windows Store home. Sure, there's MLB.tv, Yahoo Sports, and a NASCAR app, but where are all the other major sports? (Okay, an NFL fantasy football app will touch down sometime soon, but a more mainstream NFL app remains elusive.) Beyond Fhotoroom and Fotor, where are the image-editing apps? Where are the tethering apps? The productivity apps? The real-estate apps? The social apps? The music apps? Zillow? Comcast? Candy Crush? IMDb? Viber? Kik? Groupon? Virtually anything from Google?
I could keep going, but you get the point. One final note: Every single cloud-storage app available in the Windows Store--from Dropbox to SugarSync and Evernote--is horribly nerfed compared to its desktop counterpart.
Wrapping it up
That last bit drives home a crucial point. Even with 100,000 apps in the bag--enough to let you try a new app every day for nearly 274 years--the Windows Store still simply isn't useful enough to replace the desktop, nor can it compete with Apple's or Google's vast app ecosystem. Most of the available selection is noise, not signal.
The Windows 8 experience isn't a disaster simply because the Windows Store is understocked. Between the apps that are available, the legacy desktop, and good old-fashioned Web browsing, you'll be able to get through your day just fine, in a cobbled-together fashion.
But that's not good enough. Microsoft sacrificed the goodwill of PC users across the globe to foist the mobile-ready modern interface on the masses. With the Windows Store still running pretty lean, the compromises and frustrations introduced in Windows 8 hardly seem worthwhile. Computer users have little reason to give the modern UI a whirl if they need to keep bouncing back into the desktop or browser, even if that means giving up the notifications, charm support, and Live Tiles that modern apps provide. (Tangentially: Windows 8 really needs a notification center.)
Worse, the lack of apps cripples the value proposition of Windows tablets for all but a handful of niche use cases, most of which tie directly to business or schooling. A recent Flurry study showed that mobile users spend 80% of their time in apps, rather than in a browser--but that's a highly unlikely scenario on Windows tablets. If you knew you'd be spending all of your time in a browser or a in cramped view of the desktop on a pricey Windows tablet, why wouldn't you buy a dirt-cheap Android tablet like the $230 Nexus 7 instead? (Which, it's worth noting, has a full complement of apps at a far lower sticker price.)
The Windows Store isn't useless, but until it becomes actively useful, there's simply no compelling reason to pick up a Windows slate--especially a Windows RT tablet--over the competition. Microsoft isn't backing down from the modern UI, and the apps will come eventually--but even at 100,000 apps, the Windows Store is still more than a few apps short of a Happy Meal.