While Microsoft has been talking up its Windows Store for Windows 8 since last fall, with the Consumer Preview we've gotten our first hands-on glimpse of this experience. In this article, I'll take a look at the beta version of the Windows Store, which provides users with a handy, centralized way in which to discover, download, and manage Metro-style apps.
Note: Like the OS on which it runs, the Windows Store Beta is not feature complete. Currently, the store provides access only to free, Metro-style apps and of course the selection is fairly limited (to under 100 apps) so I'll be watching it closely to see how quickly things ramp up. But know that the final version of the store will offer two additional features: The ability to purchase Metro-style apps and the ability to discover classic Windows desktop applications too. However, to download or purchase those legacy-style applications, you'll have to navigate out of the store and to the application maker's web site.
Windows Store: A mile-high overview
If you're familiar with, or at least familiar with the notion of, competing (and trend-setting) mobile app stores like Apple's iconic App Store, then you get the idea of the Windows Store. It's a place where Windows 8 users can discover, download, purchase, and manage new Metro-style apps. Actually, let's take that a step further. It's not "a place." It's "the place." With the exception of managed corporate environments, all Windows 8 users will only be able to discover, download, purchase, and manage new Metro-style apps through the Windows Store. Microsoft is blocking this from happening from anywhere else.
Now, some people will take umbrage with that notion. But step back for a second and consider the "why" before you freak out over the "what." Windows Store is being designed as the sole place for Metro-style apps for a reason. A good reason: User safety.
This decision is in line with the design mantra behind Windows 8 itself, and more precisely the new Windows Runtime (WinRT), Start screen, and Metro-style environment. And that is that Metro-style apps are safe. They're safe from the OS's perspective because Windows 8 keeps them isolated, or sandboxed, from the OS itself and from other apps (and from desktop applications). So with Windows Store as the only point at which users can get apps, they're confident that these apps have been curated by Microsoft and are known to follow the rules and thus be safe themselves. And should something go wrong, Microsoft can act quickly to rectify the problem and keep users safe yet again. This isn't the Wild West.
Anyway, like Windows 8 itself, the Windows Store is tied to your Microsoft ID, or what used to be called your Windows Live ID. This is the same account that backs Hotmail, Windows Live, Zune, Xbox LIVE, and much, much more. So you probably already have one and if you follow the advice in my soon-to-be-published Windows 8 Install guides (and in Windows 8 Secrets), you will be signing into Windows 8 with a Microsoft ID and not with a local account already anyway, making this process seamless. And very similar to how Windows Phone already works.
(Note: Those who must logon with a domain account or who choose to logon with a local account can still associate, or link, their logon account with a Microsoft ID. I will explain how to do this in a future article.)
As with other mobile app stores, including the Windows Phone Marketplace, your purchase of apps through the Windows Store includes the right and ability to install (automatically, if you'd like) these apps on up to five Windows PCs and/or devices. (Including ARM-based WOA tablets.) App purchases and downloads are of course tied to your Microsoft ID and not to a particular machine. Of course, during the beta you can't purchase apps yet, but it's a point worth understanding.
And finally, app developers can choose which apps appear in which markets. So we'll see apps that work in, say, the US, but not in, say, Japan. That's up to the developers. Paid apps can also include trial versions.
OK, let's look at the store now. Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words. And I have a lot of pictures to show you.
The Windows Store user experience is classic Metro, light and airy with lots of whitespace (literally, in this case) and a nice layout. As you can see here, it's attractive and, dare I say it, touch-friendly
As with other Metro-style experiences, the Windows Store utilizes a horizontal layout that disappears off the right side of the screen. So you navigate from left to right, not up and down as in a document-based application, via a swiping gesture (touch), or Push Scrolling or mouse wheel scrolling (mouse).
The Window Store is currently divided into the following categories:
Spotlight. Apps that are being highlighted by Microsoft and some obvious sub-categories such as All stars, Top paid (currently empty), Top free, and New releases.
Games. Currently, 16 games, including two, Pinball FX2 and Solitaire, which are included with the default Consumer Preview download. Sub-categories include Action, Adventure, Arcade, Card, Casino, Family, Kids, Music, Puzzle, Racing, Role playing, Shooter, Simulation, Sports, and Strategy.
Social. An area for social networking apps that currently only has three choices, but you have to think that's going to grow. There are no subcategories.
Entertainment. Currently consisting of 9 app titles, this category includes non-game entertainment apps such as Xbox Companion (which is really about remote controlling your console for non-gaming activities) and Vimeo. There are no subcategories.
Photos. With 6 apps at the moment, this category includes photo-related apps including online services, editors, and the like. There are no subcategories.
Music & Videos. This category contains 6 apps at the moment and comes with the following subcategories: Music and, yes, videos.
Books & Reference. Also with 6 apps currently, this includes the following subcategories: E-reader, Fiction, Non-fiction, Reference, and Kids.
News & Weather. Another broad category, we see 15 apps today but just two subcategories, News and, yes, Weather.
Food & Dining. 5 apps today and no subcategories.
Shopping. Just a single app at launch (Cbazaar) and no subcategories.
Travel. With four apps at the moment and no subcategories. The only notable app right now is Kayak.
Finance. Also with four apps at launch. The Finance app that's included in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview can be found here. There are no subcategories.
Productivity. What promises to one day be a fairly voluminous category has 5 apps at the moment, including Evernote (!) and, yes, SkyDrive (part of the Consumer Preview). There are no subcategories, though I have to think that will change over time.
Tools. With 3 apps, this vague major category includes the Bing Map app and, for your Samsung Series 7 tablet users, the AT&T Communications Manager app. There are no subcategories.
Security. This final category includes two small tiles for PC protection and Personal security, though both are currently empty.
So if I'm counting correctly and there are no apps that appear in more than one category, which is certainly possible/likely (I haven't checked), there are 83 apps right now. That's not terrible, I guess, given that we're only in Beta, but I think the real measure of success here will be determined by how the store looks at launch. Again, I'll be watching this closely.
Note: Unlike most Metro-style apps, the Windows Store does not feature an App bar of any kind for some reason.
Finding and downloading an app
Ultimately, the reason you're usually visiting the store in the first place is to find and then download an app. So let's look at that process. Games are fun, so let's pretend we want to find a new game. The obvious place to start is in the Games category, so you can scroll over to that group from the main page.
Here, you'll see some promoted titles plus, in this case, some good leads like Great games for you, All stars, Top paid, and Top free. (These choices are not available in all categories.) Each game tile includes a graphic, the name of the game, whether its free or paid, and a rating, so you can learn a bit before diving in deeper.
Or, you can simply tap the Games category title to jump right into Games. Here, as with other categories, you'll see a fairly static grid of icons (which, incidentally, look an awful lot like SuperSite promo graphics; I'm just saying), and some dropdowns for subcategory, prices, and sort filtering.
To learn more about a game, tap its title. Here, I'm examining the hit title Cut the Rope.
On the app landing page, you'll see a ton of info about the game, navigational breadcrumbs for getting back "up" in the store hierarchy (as well as a large Back button), and then three tab-like headings for Overview, Details, and Reviews. If you're familiar with Windows Phone, this will is all very similar.
To install the app, click the large Install button. What happens next is very subtle: You'll see text in the upper right corner of the screen that reads, "Installing [app name]." You can tap it and see the following download screen.
When the download and install is complete, that text will disappear and a notification will appear in the upper right stating that the download is complete. You will see this notification from anywhere in Windows, not just from within the store. It's a system-wide notification toast.
From here, you can launch Cut the Rope by visiting the Start screen, where you'll discover that the app's tile has been automatically appended to the end of the Start screen, which is the case for all installed Metro-style apps and traditional Windows applications.
Launch the app and have fun. :)
Note: One thing I'm a little curious about is that download/purchased games don't seem to be called out well in the store. After I've downloaded Cut the Rope, the app still appears, in the Games list. Navigate into the app's landing page, and you'll see that the Install button is gone, and replaced with text that notes, "You own this app." But that's it. I'd like to see a filter for owned apps, or some visual indication in the app tile lists for such things.
Finally, it's worth noting, too, that you can of course search for apps using the system-wide Search contract. To do so, open the Charms and tap Search. You'll see that Store Search opens, giving you to search for the app you want.
Previous searches appear below the search box in a most-recently-used list format.
Updating an app
As with other app stores, Windows Store handles the managing, downloading, and installing of any app updates. Windows Store will alert you about any pending app updates with a tile notification, as is the case on Windows Phone. For example, here you can see that I have four app updates pending:
Inside the store, you'll see text about updates being available. Simply click that text to initiate the updates.
And that's about all there is to it. Looking ahead, the most interesting bit here, of course, is how frequently apps are added to the store over time. And we'll be watching for key apps to appear, as we do now on Windows Phone. Something tells me, however, that the Windows Store is going to be pretty well stocked, and quickly.