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Universal apps may be the Trojan horse for Windows 8 adoption

Microsoft's universal apps have developers and some IT admins interested in delivering Windows Phone 8.1 into the enterprise.

Universal apps that run across all Windows 8 devices have caught the attention of IT professionals considering Microsoft's mobile device deployments.

Microsoft's new universal applications use the same code base across the gamut of devices, ranging from Windows Phone to tablets to PCs. Developers can now use a single code base with over 99% of application programming interfaces shared across Windows 8 devices, with only minor tweaks for adjusting an app to a device's screen.

Some say universal apps could serve as the Trojan horse for Windows Phone and eventually Windows 8 adoption by corporations. Microsoft has just over 3% of the smartphone market share in the U.S., noticeably trailing Google's Android and Apple's iOS.

"The universal app model, plus all the work Microsoft has been doing on the device management front with Windows Phone, will increase the adoption opportunity in the enterprise," said Al Hilwa, an analyst at IT market research firm IDC in Framingham, Mass.

The developer community seems to agree, especially when Microsoft's efforts are coupled with Windows Phone 8.1's new Cortana personal digital assistant.

In the next six months, IT will begin to see more traction in business, which will boost Windows Phone adoption, said Jeff Harmon, lead application developer at Quaero Corp., a provider of marketing database software in Charlottesville, N.C. Harmon recently led a meeting to discuss Microsoft's latest technologies for a Boston-area Windows 8 developer group.

Universal apps to boost development

The new approach to Windows application development may affect IT shops in a number of ways.

"If an [information services] department is writing software, they can write one set of code that goes across the devices," said Arthur Cannon, a Boston-area IT consultant focused on desktop administration. Cannon said this concept can be useful, especially for smartphones.

In mobile security, protocols go across all the devices and end users usually have to download a particular piece of software that encrypts the communication for the phone, Cannon said.

But cautious IT pros are not ready to embrace universal apps, or even Microsoft's new Windows 8.1 Update 1.

"Is [adoption] about the apps or the interface?" said David Driggers, supervisor of desktops systems at Alabama Gas Corp. in Birmingham, Ala.

When people use a Windows device, they expect familiarity, and end users can't get beyond the new interface, he said. Driggers is unsure whether Microsoft's future glimpse of a Start menu integrated with the Metro and classic desktop views in Windows 9 will work for business.

"The next version is going to be stronger," Harmon said. "Windows apps... will be a better picture for businesses, and by then, Windows 8 will get more traction. Windows Phone will help in the short term."

Universal apps may also affect businesses with bring your own device policies as end users consider switching to Windows Phones when their cellular contracts go up for renewal and less expensive, yet more powerful devices come to market.

"I feel in the enterprise, it's more 'wait and see,'" said Jamison West, founder and CEO of Arterian, an IT services provider based in Seattle. He noted that Windows Phone and universal apps will be adopted more quickly among small and medium-sized businesses.

While Microsoft's universal apps are designed for the Windows Phone and Windows 8 environment, it doesn't mean that developers won't have to adjust the code to ensure an application fits on a screen. But it does mean universal apps will not run on the majority of other post-PC era devices like iPhones and Android-devices out of the box.

To do true cross-platform development, developers will need to use other tools such as those from Xamarin to rework a certain amount of code to ensure that apps work with non-Windows mobile devices.

The universal apps concept is a step forward for developers, but another component that's just as important is Microsoft's Runtime Broker. This technology, first introduced two years ago, enables developers to take Windows 7 desktop code and access it through Windows 8.

"This will be big to help [Windows 8] adoption," Harmon said. Developers can use the core part of the code and just write a new user interface, he said.

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