There is a very recent hint that Microsoft might be planning to allow Windows Phone 7 apps to run unmodified on Windows 8. To date Microsoft has focused on encouraging developers to port their Windows Phone apps to Windows 8 by modifying the UI to conform to Windows 8 Metro design guidelines and changing Silverlight .NET Framework API calls to Windows Runtime calls. This is no doubt the preferred way to go as the ideal user interface on a 10.1″ tablet screen is quite different from a 3.7″ phone screen. However, like Android and IOS before it Microsoft may find that many phone developers will take their time creating tablet-specific versions of apps. And with Windows Phone likely to have in excess of 100,000 apps in its Marketplace by the time Windows 8 ships, Microsoft could immediately make Windows 8 more attractive to consumers by allowing those apps to run on Windows 8 tablets. At least that is the conventional wisdom. So recent hints that Windows Phone apps are being tested on Windows 8, despite being in conflict with everything we’ve heard since the BUILD conference, might indicate this is another Shoe Microsoft is planning to drop.
Allowing Windows Phone apps to run on Windows 8 is trivial from an engineering standpoint. Windows Phone apps are simply Silverlight .NET apps that use a few Windows Phone-specific libraries. The former already work on Windows, the latter could be ported to Windows by an Intern. The real work is in having the Windows Store make them available, support installation of Windows Phone 7 packages on Windows 8, etc. To be honest I’d always expected Microsoft to support Windows Phone 7 apps on Windows 8, and was rather surprised when they didn’t announce this at BUILD.
Despite Microsoft’s desire to have a pure Metro/WinRT world, and put everything else in the Desktop legacy category, there are exceptions. Building an alternate browser? Microsoft will let you break the rules and create a Metro browser that uses more than just the WinRT APIs. Basically this is a compromise that maintains the status quo around browsers from its antitrust settlements. Office 15 is a hybrid as well. Making an exception to Metro/WinRT for Windows Phone apps wouldn’t be setting a new precedent. So why not do it?
There are two reasons I can see for not supporting Windows Phone 7 apps on Windows 8. The first is not wanting to bring a legacy to Windows 8 that won’t be of that much benefit to users. Take a key difference between Microsoft’s situation and Apple’s. When Apple introduced the iPad the iPhone was already a run-away success. So when a customer bought an iPad they already knew they wanted to run “Kissing Toadstools” and most of their other favorite iPhone apps on it. Windows Phone won’t have enough penetration at Windows 8 RTM for this dynamic to really play out. Microsoft can work to make sure the most popular Windows Phone apps have native Windows 8 versions at or near launch, and the “long tail” of other Windows Phone apps isn’t going to drive sales or customer satifaction the way it did for Apple.
But the second reason Microsoft might not want to allow Windows Phone apps to run on Windows 8 is the Android experience. Android tablets had, and still have, very few native applications. Nearly the entire application library consists of Android phone apps that you run on the tablet. Basically Android has allowed the chicken and egg question to live on way too long, with software developers waiting for Android tablets to take off before they create tablet-specific versions of their apps. And one of the reasons the tablets haven’t taken off (Kindle Fire aside) is that there are so few tablet apps for them. By not giving developers the easy out of running their Windows Phone apps on Windows 8 Microsoft would hope to break the cycle and force developers to create Windows 8 apps if they want to play in that world at all. It is a gamble with lots of upside and little downside risk.
There is one more possibility that I think really tells the story. When Microsoft announces the Windows Phone 8 SDK they will announce a way to write apps that can run on both Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8. While existing Windows Phone 7 apps will run on Windows Phone 8, developers are likely to move quickly to port their apps to this new standard in order to have a great Windows Phone 8 version available at or near RTM. Thus they will simultaneously make their app available to (if still not tuned specifically for) Windows 8 tablets. This is the Shoe I really expect Microsoft to drop.
So, will existing Windows Phone 7 apps be supported on Windows 8? The jury is still out. At this point I think it would be more marketing stunt (“Windows Store has more than 100,000 apps at launch”) than of practical benefit. But for users the value is low, so skipping support of Windows Phone 7 apps isn’t much of a lost opportunity.