It's a Mad, Mad World . . . of Apps

It's a Mad, Mad World . . . of Apps

It's an app world, and we're just living in it

Implicit in Microsoft’s promise to gradually update all of its products and services as part of a broad strategy of continuous improvements is the notion that its platforms are now malleable and ever-changing rather than monolithic and inert. But the chameleon-like nature of the software we use won’t be determined solely by Microsoft. These solutions can also be formally extended and changed by third parties. And this extensibility is most often seen through apps.

Yep, apps.

Check out "The Age of the Rapid Release Cycle" for my take on Microsoft’s new strategy, which represents a profound change that will affect the ways in which we interact with technology forever. Looking beyond what Microsoft is doing—or, more correctly, combining that view with what third parties will be able to do thanks to ever-improving extensibility capabilities—and a new picture of the future of computing emerges.

We’ve all smiled knowingly at the occasionally glimpsed screen, whether it’s in an airport, train station, or other public space, that is running some ancient version of Windows, perhaps Windows 2000. The reason that’s funny—or sad, depending on your perspective—is that Windows 2000 is almost a decade and a half old, and we all know about the generational shifts that have occurred since its release. But the underlying reason this is so notable is that this software was developed using a monolithic mindset that a lot of us simply can’t seem to think past, whether out of tradition, familiarity, or whatever.

Imagine for a second that that display was running a web app in Google’s Chrome. Two years, or ten years down the road, or whatever, it’s pretty likely that the underlying platform—Chrome—as well as the actual app will continue to be updated. We would glance at such a screen and not notice anything, because it wouldn’t be out of date. In fact, years later, only the surrounding hardware will seem out of date. And given the commodity pricing on such things, even that can be replaced pretty regularly.

Reigning in this discussion somewhat, the same pervasive updateability will fundamentally alter all of Microsoft’s core platforms as well. Windows 8/RT, Windows Phone 8, Office 2013 and the Office 365 “servers,” Windows Server (including Essentials), Windows Azure, Xbox, and others are all served by app stores that provide the same basic function of allowing users and organizations to extend the functionality of their platform purchases with free and paid apps (and other extensions).

This notion of an app store dates back five years, of course, to Apple’s App Store for iPhone, a belated realization by that company that its desire to control every aspect of the platform was so 1990s. Apple’s App Store exploded in very positive ways—the firm celebrated 50 billion app downloads about a month ago—triggering an industry-wide realization that an app store was a formal, necessary part of any modern software platform, mobile or otherwise.

Now consider how this new normal could affect your organization. Not only will Microsoft be routinely updating the software platforms that run your business—Azure, Server, Office 365 and Office, Windows, whatever—but you, your employees, and even your customers will be able to extend those capabilities even further with apps and other add-ins. This is, of course, both good and bad.

If you haven’t done so, check out the new Office Apps Store for an example of the sometimes impressive ways in which current solutions—in this case Office applications for end users as well as Office servers and services such as SharePoint—can be improved using new web-based extensibility tools. These technologies are both easy for developers to adopt and use and powerful enough to result in some impressive solutions.

Some of the best examples are for Outlook and SharePoint. As an end user, you can extend the Outlook 2013 client with online services integration (LinkedIn, Bing Maps, and so on), new capabilities (automatic message filing, language translation, and more), and a lot more. And admins can find a plethora of SharePoint apps that extend that platform too.

Yes, extensibility options have existed for these and other platforms for some time. But what’s changed is that everyone—users and admins—are comfortable with, and expect, app stores. Apps are everywhere: It’s an app world, and we’re just living in it. And this expectation will help drive the move away from monolithic software releases because we’re being conditioned to always want more. Over time, what we’re using will change so much it will hardly be recognizable as what we originally signed up for. It will have evolved in ways we never anticipated.

Years from now, as you pass by that crashed display in an airport, train station, or other public space, look close. What you see, I suspect, won’t be the same thing they purchased years earlier. And the days of chuckling at the obsolescence of the technology that’s out in the world might just come to an end.

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