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One Win 8 to rule them all: Microsoft talks up 'universal apps' for PCs, slabs and mobes

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Build 2014 Eight months after launching its pushbutton App Studio GUI development kit for Windows Phone, Microsoft has extended the tool to include support for building apps for Windows 8, too.

The latest beta version of the web-based tool formerly known as Windows Phone App Studio, announced at Microsoft's Build developer conference on Thursday, has been rebranded as Windows App Studio to reflect the change – although so far the tool is still hosted at windowsphone.com.

The new release allows "developers of all skill levels" to use the same tools and resources to generate apps for Windows 8 and Windows Phone simultaneously, toggling between phone and desktop views throughout the development process.

The move comes as Redmond works to offer coders a unified app development experience across the phone, tablet, and desktop versions of Windows, as El Reg touched upon here.

That unification process arguably began in November, when Microsoft merged its developer programs for Windows and Windows Phone, giving subscribers access to resources for both platforms from a single account.

At Microsoft's Build 2014 conference this week, the software giant introduced what it's calling "universal Windows apps" – apps that share most of the same code but come in versions tailored for a variety of screen form factors and operating systems, including Windows 8, Windows Phone, Windows RT, and eventually even Xbox.

"With universal Windows apps developers can choose to let users download a free app or purchase an app once and install it across all of their compatible Windows devices, as well as allow users to access in-app purchases across their compatible Windows devices," Windows Store general manager Todd Brix said in a blog post on Thursday.

Apps of this new type will be flagged with a special icon in the Windows Store, beginning in the next few weeks.

Note that this shift doesn't mean Windows developers will be creating "write once, run anywhere" apps – not exactly. They'll still have to build a separate binary for each operating system, and for x86 and ARM versions of Windows, for example.

Windows 8 and Windows Phone also still have separate Dev Centers, application submission flows, and dashboards, although Microsoft says it's working on consolidating them.

With the forthcoming launch of Windows Phone 8.1, however – due to arrive this summer – Microsoft is bringing the Windows Runtime, first introduced in Windows 8, to Windows Phone. As a result, developers will be able to repurpose substantially more of the same code in apps for both the desktop and smartphones.

Windows Store, Windows Phone Store cosy up

Redmond has also further streamlined its developer programs, for example by combining the separate developer agreements for the Windows Store and the Windows Phone Store into a single contract that covers both.

The MSDN content library has been consolidated into a single reference for all of Microsoft's platforms, and Redmond's support team now offers developers a single point of contact for all versions of Windows.

The software giant also plans to eliminate the Windows Store's tiered pricing and revenue-sharing model on December 31, replacing it with an industry-standard 70/30 revenue split, as has been the practice for Windows Phone.

All of the above are important steps to help address Microsoft's most pressing need – namely, to convince developers to write mobile apps for Windows 8 and Windows Phone, when competing platforms like Android and iOS remain infinitely more popular.

Most surveys report Windows Phone's share of the global smartphone market in the single digits – although it appears to be growing – while many if not most PC users still prefer the traditional desktop to Windows 8's touch-centric Modern UI.

Even Microsoft admitted in February that although 350,000 people have used Windows Phone App Studio to create 300,000 projects, only 20,000 of those apps ever made it to the Windows Phone Store.

And the situation is even bleaker for Windows 8. According to metrostorescanner.com, there are now just over 150,000 apps in the Windows Store. Even lowly BlackBerry can rival that figure, and it's a drop in the bucket compared to either Apple's App Store or Google Play, each of which is approaching a million apps.

Whether allowing developers to target two platforms for the price of one will strengthen Microsoft's case remains to be seen. But the company is moving rapidly to rally coders around the concept of universal Windows apps; in addition to Windows Studio Beta, Redmond has published a release candidate of the next update to Visual Studio 2013, which also includes support for the new coding model. ®

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