In late June, Microsoft said it would permanently close its chain of 82 retail stores after temporarily shuttering them in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s an ignominious end to a failed experiment and attempt by Microsoft to try and build some of same cachet as the Apple Store.
But Microsoft’s largely humdrum hardware never inspired the same devotion as Apple’s devices. And Microsoft could never out-market Apple — the Microsoft Store never came up with the equivalent of the Genius Bar, and the stores were never destinations in and of themselves like Apple Stores have been.
Microsoft, in a ham-handed way, tried to portray closing the stores as a victory because…well, it’s hard to know why the company considers it a victory.
In an attempt at spin control, David Porter, Microsoft corporate vice president of the Microsoft Store, said in a blog post that the company had “announced a strategic change in our retail operations, including closing Microsoft Store physical locations.” What’s the big strategic change apart from closing the physical retail stores – and why is that better for consumers?
Porter didn’t say.
As big a failure as the Microsoft Stores have been, the real store Microsoft should have axed is the one built into Windows for downloading software. You say you never used it? Join the club. The Microsoft Store in Windows has never had a solid collection of downloadable software — and is largely filled with underpowered apps that people simply don’t want to use.
The problem was baked in from the beginning. Nearly eight years ago, when writing about the original store, I noted, that it “...seems as barren of goods as a Romanian grocery store during the depths of the Ceausescu regime."
There were many reasons for that. A primary one was that for most of the download store’s life, the only apps allowed in were those built with what Microsoft calls the Universal Windows Platform (UWP). UWP was part of Windows 8, and in those days, Microsoft believed its Windows Phone would become the dominant mobile operating system.
The idea was that developers would build apps using UWP, and the apps would run on both Windows 8 and Windows Phone. In Microsoft’s worldview, software written for the Windows Desktop, called Win32 apps, would slowly fade away, while UWP apps would conquer the world.
Things didn’t turn out that way, of course. Windows Phone failed miserably. Developers stayed away from UWP apps in droves, and the store continued to have plenty of empty virtual shelves. Win32 apps still rule the world, and the apps Microsoft did develop for UWP were exceedingly underpowered.
Though there were plans to release a UWP version of Office, that never happened. Microsoft wrote an app it called Office, but it wasn’t Office. Instead, it was supposed to be a companion to Office.
What did it do? Here’s the description from the Microsoft Store: “The Office app enables you to get the most out of Office by helping you find all your Office apps and files in one place so you can jump quickly into your work.”
Not exactly groundbreaking — or particularly useful.
So few developers wrote UWP apps for the Microsoft Store that at one point Microsoft essentially bribed them to do so. In early 2013, it launched a promotion in which it paid $100 to developers to send UWP apps to the Windows Store. Each developer could get up to $200 – $100 per app.
Microsoft was so hungry to stock those software shelves that it did a terrible job of vetting them for quality and safety. An investigation found in 2014 that "Microsoft’s Windows Store is a mess. It’s full of apps that exist only to scam people and take their money. Why doesn’t Microsoft care that their flagship app store is such a cesspool?"
Microsoft finally got around to removing 1,500 bad apps from the store. But that made it only seem like a lonelier place.
Eventually, Microsoft recognised that UWP was a failure. The original Microsoft Edge was written in UWP, and Microsoft abandoned it and developed a newer browser based on open-source Chromium.
Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s experiences and devices division, explained the decision this way, “It’s not that UWP is bad, but UWP is not a 35-year-old mature platform that a ridiculously huge amount of apps have been written to.”
These days, the Microsoft Store in Windows still offers mainly UWP apps, though you can occasionally find a Win32 app. But it doesn’t have many of the best and most important Win32 apps. Want the most popular Windows browser, Chrome? You won’t find it in the Microsoft Store.
How about Adobe Reader? Nope, not there. How about the great clean-up utility CCleaner, the Dropbox cloud application or the excellent malware killer Malwarebytes? No, no and no. Want to videoconference using Zoom in Windows 10? Correct, you’ll have to find it somewhere else.
If Microsoft can’t make its store in Windows truly useful, it should do away with it. Unless the company can improve it, it’s time to pull the plug.