Windows Store Weekly: Exciting times for Windows app BUILDers and users alike

Windows Store Weekly is a weekly round-up of what's been going on in the world of Windows apps, from the most prominent and anticipated, to the bolted and patched, and the fresh and promising, while also scooping up leaks, both official and unofficial.

If you haven’t been living under a rock, you’re probably aware that Microsoft held its BUILD 2016 conference this week, and sure enough there is lots to get excited about - whether you’re a Windows app developer, or just a simple user - and just like last week, we’ve also rounded up the latest ripples in the Windows Store, so read on and enjoy.

Bolted and patched

One of the apps that was updated this week is the Windows Camera app. There are a couple of additions that are among the most requested in the Feedback Hub, the first of which is the ability to use Rich HDR (another name for Rich Capture) whenever you see fit – whereas before you would’ve had the option to either to let the app decide when to activate it, or just disable it completely.

It’s worth noting that if you’ve recently upgraded to Windows 10 Mobile or happen to be a Lumia 930/950 user, the Rich HDR mode may not work as well as you’d expect, and on top of that there are still reports of people who can’t properly record audio during video capture with the Lumia 930. The second improvement is the ability to pause while recording video, which is certainly long overdue, but it’s finally here.

The Microsoft Phone app is another app that received a significant update. The app should now be more reliable than before, and the call history should display all the calls, whereas it used to “forget” some of them for a small number of users. Other than that, there are accessibility improvements in the form of high-contrast icons, better touch typing, and standardized date and time formatting.

The Movies & TV app in Windows 10 definitely leaves many of us wanting, as it lacks basic features that many users expect to find in any media player app that is worth their time. A new update this week has brought in some of that functionality, giving you the ability to “skip back” or “skip forward” in steps of 30 seconds, but as we’ve explained above, we wonder why there’s no option to set the step size, and it's worth noting that speed controls - as well as audio and subtitle synchronization - have been available in the VLC app for quite some time.

If anything, the updated Movies & TV app can finally estimate the remaining time for your movie and TV show downloads, and you can also delete individual titles from one device without removing them from all your devices.

At BUILD 2016, Microsoft has showcased a lot of improvements coming to Cortana in the Windows Anniversary Update, from making it easier to access when in a hurry, to allowing it to sift through your information to help you organize and communicate more efficiently. In anticipation to the summer release of the Anniversary Update, the company has made a selection of apps that feature powerful integration with Cortana.

Available for PC and mobile, the “Better with Cortana” collection currently features only 19 apps - including Netflix, Uber, Wunderlist, American Express, and Fitbit. Whether you want to arrange transportation, take a quick note when you have your hands full, or ask for information on your bank account activity or balance, Microsoft wants you to rely on Cortana to give you a digital hand with it.

The Fitbit app also received a significant update this week and features a redesigned UI, better performance, new live tiles that highlight your achievements, and improved support for Continuum. In addition to these improvements, the app has been migrated to OAuth 2.0, for a more secure login experience (at least theoretically) if you’re using a third party account.

As always, there have been plenty of ‘placebo updates’ this week in the form of bug fixes and stability improvements for several apps, including: Spotify, PicsArt, Outlook Mail and Calendar (for Redstone Insiders), Echo (new animations), Microsoft Health, Word Mobile, Excel Mobile, PowerPoint Mobile, OneNote (audio reminders for Office Insiders), Windows Maps (only for Redstone Insiders at this point), PlayCast (Chromecast bug has been squashed), ACG Media Player, Mediafire, Audible (now supports keyboard shortcuts), 6tin (large emoji), Fitbit, Deezer Music Preview, and games such as Jack N’ Jill and Ridiculous Marathon.

New arrivals

The Drawboard PDF app has been rewritten from scratch, and features a very long list of improvements and features, but we’ll only get you acquainted with the essentials. It’s important to note right from the start that the developers have officially ended support for the Windows 8.x versions of the app, as the focus has been shifted towards the Windows 10 version, which is a UWP app.

A lot of effort was spent on improving the overall performance and memory usage of the app, and rendering pages and thumbnails should now be a better user experience thanks to small tweaks done to the way the app handles disk caching. The layout and iconography has been redesigned, and there’s now a radial menu for quicker access to various tools. You can also use drag and drop and give voice commands using Cortana, which are rather small but important additions to the functionality of Drawboard PDF.

Marriott International is a chain of over 4000 hotels and resorts spanning 70 countries, and their Windows app is among the ones that received the UWP treatment this week. In a nutshell, the new app integrates with Cortana and the People app to make it easier for you to do things like setting up a reservation.

Fresh and promising

While not exactly new, the LoadKit Download Manager app is one of the promising ones in the Windows Store. There are plenty of Win32 download managers out there, but this is the first UWP app that is actually worth trying. It features a simple interface, but don’t let that fool you – this app has plenty of features:

  • Support for HTTP, HTTPS and FTP Protocols
  • Authorization (when required by the download server)
  • Categorizing (with the ability to set specific download location for each category)
  • Filter, Sort and Search
  • Scheduling and Queues
  • In-app Browser (Microsoft Edge-based)
  • Pause and Resume
  • Import and Export (the app can open downloads from a list, as well as create one)
  • Web Browser Integration (via Firefox and Chrome extensions, with plans for an Edge extension)
  • Live Tiles
  • Background Downloading
  • Action Center notifications

This is pretty much all you’d expect from such and app, and if you’re not a heavy user – you can use it for free, as long as you don’t mind the ads, which can sometimes have problems displaying correctly. If you want, you can get rid of the ads and remove the 25 items limitation for $4.49.

Another app that caught our eye is the Interactive Whiteboard app by Explain Everything. If you’re wondering what it does, it’s basically a powerful education tool that parents and teachers can use to augment the traditional methods. You can put together interactive presentations on various topics (by importing images, videos, recording audio, drawing, and typing text), or you can select one from a content discovery portal called Explain Everything Discover.

The creators of the Interactive Whiteboard app describe it as a way for you as an educator to teach by “visualizing ideas, animating concepts, and building understanding”. You can import various file types from OneDrive, DropBox, and Google Drive, and you can export your finished projects to EE Discover and YouTube, which is wonderful – but there’s a catch: after a 30-day trial, you need a subscription if you want to continue creating interactive presentations.

The good news is that you can still play the existing presentations in the EE Discover portal, it’s just that you won’t be able to create new ones yourself. If you want to do so, look here for specifics on pricing. In any case, we think this is a quality addition to the pool of Windows apps, and one that is well worth checking out.

Things to come

As we’ve mentioned at the beginning of this article, there are several reasons to get excited about the future of Windows app development. With over 100 sessions covering just that, the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) has been one of the hot topics at BUILD this year.

Developers can now deploy apps to an even wider range of devices, from small IoT devices and up to the gargantuan Surface Hub. The Windows Anniversary Update will bring a number of new capabilities to the table this summer, such as better Inking, a more personal digital assistant, and an army of quirky bots – as well as the framework to craft your own.

The Xbox One can now be turned into a dev kit, and Microsoft is merging the Xbox Store and Windows 10 Store, as well as their respective Insider Preview programs, in a big convergence that will happen when the Anniversary Update lands on Windows 10 PCs. Cortana will be there too, and it will be smarter than ever.

Microsoft has also started shipping the HoloLens Development Edition that some of you have paid $3,000 for, and our own Andy Weir has had the privilege to test one at BUILD 2016. You can read more about his impressions here, but the short story is that the HoloLens is as exciting as it is not ready, with its true potential lying in Microsoft’s continued effort to bring a polished product to market.

Developers, developers, developers, developers, developers…

The UWP app model is evolving, from the way apps are packaged and installed, to the way they work, and the way they’re discarded. While most of the foundations have already been in place for some time now, the upcoming Anniversary Update is the actual point of convergence that Microsoft wants to achieve.

With a unified core and app platform, developers can now make a single base app, and then add layers that allow for an optimal experience on all screen sizes with different pixel densities, as well as take advantage of the unique capabilities of a certain device, such as allowing you to interact with game worlds or virtual showrooms in novel ways using a device such as HoloLens.

To realize its vision, Microsoft is inviting developers to transition their 16 million Win32 apps to the UWP by means of a tool called “Desktop App Converter”. This isn’t just a “drag-and-drop” conversion tool, as it actually allows developers to take advantage of UWP APIs. This way, your Win32 app can get the best of both worlds: the COM, the file system, Live Tiles, Cortana, notifications, etc. - it’s all possible now, except it will now run in a sandbox, which is great for security.

This is also meant to give users a clean way to install and uninstall apps, as well as keep them up to date without effort. It’s also not too difficult to imagine that if all the apps you use will be UWP apps that can sync their settings and data with the cloud, a Windows upgrade will become a much less painful process. Back in January 2015, Satya Nadella explained it best:

"We want to move from people needing Windows to choosing Windows, to loving Windows. That is our bold goal."

If you’re one of those who expected interactive Live Tiles in the next major update to Windows 10, know that Microsoft in making ‘adaptive’ toast notifications instead (at least for the time being). Even so, Live Tiles will now be “chaseable”, which means that clicking on them will actually take you to the content you wanted to access – instead of dropping you on the app’s home screen.

With a bit of effort from developers, apps will be able to deliver richer toast notifications – with large images, more text, basically offering more information at a glance, as well as better discoverability, and a way to jump to a specific action - such as finding a restaurant on a map by following a recommendation you received from an app.

Making the case for UWP

During the BUILD 2016 Day 1 keynote, Microsoft’s Terry Myerson highlighted a number of big-name apps that are either available as universal apps or coming soon to the UWP:

“We are excited about new Universal Windows apps from Twitter, Uber, King, Disney, Wargaming Group, Square Enix, Yahoo, and WWE – with new Bank of America, Starbucks, Facebook and Instagram apps on their way, along with the support from the Facebook Audience Network for all Windows developers.”

Microsoft is trying to convince developers that Windows is where their home should be, and to make it even more attractive, they’re lowering the bar of entry: any developer using Visual Studio can now access Xamarin tools for free, and the source code is now public. The Redmond giant hopes that this will encourage cross-platform development, and - as a result - it could bring more quality apps to the Windows Store.

Myerson also responded to the recent criticism targeted at UWP, stating that:

“For over thirty years, Windows has been an open ecosystem. [...] Nothing changes with the Universal Windows Platform—it brings together the openness that is part of Windows’ history. [...] Our goal is for Windows to be the best platform for all developers, making Windows their home and getting the best return on their investment in their code.”

We'd like to know: do you think that Microsoft has offered enough at this year's BUILD to convince developers that Windows is the best platform for both app development and app deployment?

It's been a busy week in the world of tech, so if you're looking for the big picture, our 7 Days feature will paint it for you. There is also plenty of discussion brewing in the forums on a wide range of topics, so head over there and join the buzz.

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