If you were going to sum up Windows 8 in a single sentence, "It's all about the apps" would do the trick. And that's why a new study from Soluto, a company that offers a remote troubleshooting tool for Windows PCs, suggests a somewhat stark reality for Microsoft's new-look operating system.
Windows 8 was rebuilt from the ground up to revolve around finger-friendly Windows apps. The modern UI Start screen is chock-full of Live Tiles generated from those apps, virtually all of Microsoft's default programs sport that oh-so-modern (a.k.a. the interface formerly known as Metro) luster, and users don't even get the option of booting straight to the desktop. You have to stare the Start screen's shiny, shifty app collection in the face every time you boot up your PC.
With that heavy a focus, Windows 8's very future hinges on the success of its apps. Soluto's report digs into how often people really use those apps on a daily basis.
The news isn't wonderful. Of the 10,848 Windows 8 devices studied by Soluto, the majority of traditional desktop and laptop users--even ones using a device with a touchscreen--fail to open a modern-style app daily. (Note that this study refers only to modern apps, not to traditional desktop programs.) Even on tablets, the devices best suited for Windows 8's modern UI, just 56 percent of all users launch a Windows 8 app day in and day out.
Soluto's data backs up what we've all been saying all along: Modern UI apps flat out work better on a touchscreen. Tablet users open modern apps nearly twice as frequently as desktop users, and people who rock touchscreen laptops launch modern apps 47 percent more often than their non-touch brethren.
There's a big caveat here: A Soluto representative told me that all of the data used in its study was culled from Windows 8 proper, as the company's software does not yet support Windows RT. Since Windows RT tablets--like Microsoft's own Surface RT--are limited to using only modern UI apps, their app usage rates would no doubt be much higher.
Don't sweat the omission too much, though. Recent reports suggest Windows RT is languishing on the vine, with the IDC research group estimating that just 200,000 Windows RT units sold in the first quarter of the year.
Diddling with defaults
Soluto also tracked which apps are being used the most. Unsurprisingly, all but one of the top ten entries are preinstalled Microsoft apps. (Netflix cracked the list at number eight.) What's a bit surprising, however, is how rarely most apps--especially non-Microsoft apps--are being used.
Only Windows Reader, Windows Photos, Windows Camera, and the core communication apps--like Mail and Calendar--are being used by more than 10 percent of users. That quartet consists of defaults tied to basic functions of the OS. (Soluto representatives told me the modern version of Internet Explorer 10 was not included in this study.)
The Soluto report has a full breakdown of the top 20 most-used modern UI apps, along with other interesting data points, if you're curious.
Digging into the numbers
When contacted, a Microsoft spokesperson supplied the following statement:
Consumers are excited about the apps in the Windows Store and are using their favorite apps across their Windows 8 PCs and tablets. We've already passed the 250 million app download mark just six months after general availability, and almost 90% of our app catalog has been downloaded every month. We have more than 70,000 apps in the Windows Store, including favorites like Twitter, Netflix, Angry Birds, Evernote, eBay and Amazon, and more apps are added every day.
While you could try to put a positive spin on Soluto's report--almost 40 percent of desktop users open a modern app every day!--the truth behind the numbers is a bit drearier than Microsoft's rosy picture might lead you to believe.
Windows 8 doesn't include traditional desktop programs for email, basic document or photo opening, calendar functionality, contact management, or SkyDrive access. Windows Media Player comes preinstalled, but the system defaults are the Music and Video apps.
In other words, if you want to use Windows 8 out of the box, you have to use finger-friendly apps. Even so, Soluto's numbers suggest that such use simply isn't happening as often as Microsoft no doubt wants it to be.
Most Windows 8 users aren't using a modern app daily. The vast majority of the most-used apps get used less than once per week, core communication apps aside. Most of the apps that are being used are critical apps baked into the operating system by Microsoft, not shining stars from third-party publishers.
Read between the lines, and you can see that users are still turning to the desktop for their everyday computing needs, despite the desktop's "Just another app" status in Windows 8.
Trials and tribulations
And who can blame them? The Windows Store still lags behind competitors in overall quantity and quality, and it's plagued by several prominent no-shows months after launch. Microsoft's own numbers show an average of just 2.5 modern UI apps are downloaded for each Windows 8 license.
The problems go deeper than that, however. The default apps included with the OS, while beautiful, lack some of the basic functionality found in desktop alternatives. And while it's certainly possible to use modern apps with a keyboard and mouse, doing so isn't exactly pleasurable when compared to the mouse-optimized interfaces of classic software.
Hints of a possible desktop resurgence in Windows Blue should come as no surprise. But all that said, Microsoft is nevertheless on the right track, and it always plays the long game.
Big-name additions like Twitter, MLB.tv, and a free Adobe Photoshop Express app are starting to sneak into the Windows Stare regularly, and Microsoft's shift to incremental, rapid-fire improvements is already starting to pay (similarly incremental) dividends for Windows 8's core apps.
Microsoft is also prepping Windows Blue, a free update to the core Windows 8 experience. Early leaks suggest shoring up some of the most glaring flaws with the modern UI is a priority. If you make the modern UI more palatable, you make modern UI apps more palatable.
Perhaps most important, touchscreen laptops are finally starting to pick up steam, nabbing 10 percent of the overall notebook market in the first quarter. For modern apps to shine, touchscreens must be ubiquitous.
No, Microsoft's modern-style vision for the future isn't quite here yet--assuming that Soluto's numbers scale true (and there's no reason to suppose that they don't). The world, it seems, isn't quite ready to ditch the desktop completely. But the groundwork has been done.
Revolutionizing Windows as we know it is a long journey, not a quick sprint, and one taken baby step by baby step--even after the heavy-handed introduction of the modern UI.