What you need to know about Windows 10, UWP and desktop apps

With the Creators Update, Microsoft is making it easier to wrap existing desktop apps in the new Universal Windows Platform format. Is that a stepping stone to more modern Windows 10 apps or recognition that traditional PC applications are the foundation of Windows?

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Windows 10 (like Windows 8 before it) isn’t just a new version of Windows. It also comes with a new model for building apps that’s much more like the sandboxed approach of smartphone operating systems.

These apps, currently known as Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps (previous versions were WinRT, Metro, Modern and Store apps), get access to the new platform features like live tiles on the Start screen, ink input, working with Cortana and creating notifications in the Action Center. But they’re also more limited in some ways, and deliberately so for reasons of security, reliability and battery life.

UWP apps don’t make permanent changes to the Windows environment when you install and use them. Instead they use a virtual registry and system files so they don’t cause conflicts with other apps and they’re easier to remove cleanly. The AppX package they install from can be updated seamlessly to give apps new features. “All developers want their users to be on the most recent version of their app and all users hate popups telling them to upgrade. UWP apps can fix that,” Kevin Gallo, vice president for the Windows developer platform tells CIO.com

The apps need permission to access hardware like microphones and webcams, and they can’t access the entire file system, so a malicious app can’t do as much damage. If they’re running in the background, UWP apps might be closed automatically if the system needs more memory. And what makes them universal is that, if developers choose, the same app can be written to run on a desktop PC, tablet, phone, Xbox and HoloLens — because they all run Windows 10. “UWP is about taking advantage of the full power of the desktop while still developing for other devices,” Gallo says.

The Windows 10 APIs used by UWP apps are where all the new Windows APIs are being added, although many of those APIs can still be used by traditional desktop applications. The AppX packaging format of UWP apps is also used by Windows Server Apps; that’s key for Nano Server where you can’t run the traditional GUI installers used by many server apps, but it also makes for cleaner installs on Windows Server 2016 systems because AppX doesn’t support custom actions.

There’s an increasing number of tools for building UWP apps — from Microsoft’s Xamarin cross-platform development system to the UWP Community Toolkit. In fact, it has been possible to build UWP apps with Xamarin for months already; the team building Xamarin actually does most of their prototyping and core work in UWP.

Microsoft recently worked with Telerik to open source UWP controls for key user interface elements from familiar tools like data grids, data forms and chart controls, to controls for working with touch and ink, and radial controls to use with Microsoft’s Surface Dial. It’s about making it easier to develop UWP apps, said Gallo. “Our enterprise customers tell us that they need a simple toolkit to paste together the simplest apps for their business and we can help them save time.”

Opening up the bug database for the UWP, including the backlog of features that are in development, should also address complaints from developers about lack of clarity over Microsoft’s plans that go back to the first announcement of WinRT in Windows 8 (if not before). “People tell us it's a black hole; they don't see it from us until the release,” says Gallo. “It's just not as transparent as we think it should be. We see ourselves being more efficient internally when we do that and we want to make sure we have transparency in the way we talk about our bugs and feature requests and the way we're evolving the system.” 

Bridging the UWP gap

Convincing enterprise developers to pick up UWP has been an uphill battle for Microsoft, and not just because they only run on Windows 10. Nicholas McQuire, vice president for enterprise research at analyst firm CCS Insight blames both the pace of Windows 10 adoption in the enterprise (which he says will pick up strongly this year) and “Microsoft’s general lack of traction and focus on mobile over the past few years.” But, he adds, “there’s also a general lack of awareness in enterprise on the advantages of UWP and the specific use cases where UWP drives more value.” Plus, “having to rewrite existing desktop apps from scratch has been a barrier, as there still is a ton of immaturity regarding internal mobile app development in general in the enterprise.”

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