I've written about Microsoft's plans for the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) a couple of times in recent weeks, but on both occasions I've been looking at what UWP will mean for the future of Xbox - with the console platform set to become, in effect, an extension of the Windows 10 ecosystem. As an Xbox One owner or an Xbox consumer in general, you may well find the changes proposed to be pretty positive overall; UWP heralds a potentially dramatic shift in Microsoft's console strategy which would change the Xbox landscape, but would overall result in Xbox consumers getting access to more software and functionality. It's a pretty good deal for those on the console side of the equation.
If you're looking at this from the perspective of a PC gamer, though, you'd be forgiven for being far, far less enthusiastic. Sure, the notion of being able to move games and applications between UWP devices is appealing - but it comes at the cost of shifting to the Universal Windows Application (UWA) architecture, whose pros and cons are still being hotly debated within the industry. The view of many developers - most notably and most vocally Tim Sweeney of Epic Games - is that UWA applications are more limited and more restricted than existing Windows apps, and are essentially designed to give Microsoft vastly more control of the application ecosystem on Windows. This doesn't bother Xbox users, of course; software for consoles can only be published by, or under license, from the platform holders. Shifting to that model for Windows, though, would represent a very major loss of freedom on the platform - one which makes developers deeply uncomfortable.
"It is Microsoft's responsibility to give consumers and developers proper, cast-iron guarantees about how the platform will evolve and develop"
It's important to underline that this is, to some degree, a slippery-slope argument. UWA is one framework developers can use on Windows 10, the other being Win32, the old, far less restricted application framework which has been the standard for Windows development for decades. Presently, you can download a Win32-based game or application from anywhere you like and run it on your Windows 10 PC without difficulty. UWA apps are more restricted in some important ways - they can't be effectively modded and you can't run companion apps like screen capture utilities with them; moreover, some features tied to third-party stores like Steam just don't work, including, it seems, the Steam controller hardware - but perhaps the biggest problem is that UWA apps are designed to be distributed through Microsoft's own Windows Store. The company has made it possible to "side-load" UWA applications on devices without going through the store, but the very term "side-load" makes it clear that this functions as a more complex, somewhat obfuscated process for advanced users - the company wants the majority of users to access their games and apps through the storefront it provides.
That's a problem for many developers, not just because of the current limitations of UWA - many of which ought to be fixed reasonably quickly as the software evolves - but because of how it undermines the freedom of the PC platform. The appeal of the PC to developers and to many consumers lies in the ability to run whatever software you like, and to modify and mess with that software to quite a degree. Developers can make whatever they wish and release it through whatever storefront or distribution mechanism they wish; consumers can buy from multiple sources, install mods or fan-developed updates, and use third-party applications in tandem with their games to add layers of functionality. None of that is possible on console platforms; it's also not possible on Apple's iOS. Android lies somewhere in the middle, with a Google-operated store but application side-loading also possible for the technically minded; but that's more of a cautionary tale than a recommendation for Microsoft's UWP approach, since Android's side-loading is largely only used by devoted hobbyists and effectively amounts to a curiosity rather than a genuinely alternative distribution and business model.
The future that developers like Sweeney imagine, should Microsoft continue down this path (or well-greased incline), is one where the PC drifts closer to the console or smartphone model; where anyone can pick up development tools and start making an application, but if you want to get it into the hands of consumers, you'll have to jump through whatever hoops Microsoft insists upon for the Windows Store (which could include restrictions on the content you're allowed to include) and pay a 30 percent fee to the company. The alternative will be to offer your games for side-loading, restricting yourself to potentially a tiny sliver of the market; or to develop a Win32 application, which may well mean targeting an increasingly out-of-date feature-set as UWA evolves to include new functionality and Win32 is left behind.
Microsoft's response to the controversy has been somewhat lukewarm; in a statement released after Sweeney's editorial was published in The Guardian, Microsoft describes UWP as a "fully open ecosystem" and promotes its addition of side-loading features to Windows 10 late last year. It also alluded to UWP being able to be supported by any store, implying that storefronts such as Steam or EA Origin will be available as alternatives to the Windows Store, though it's not clear what compromises or changes would have to be made either to UWP or to the storefronts in order to make that work.
It's entirely possible to read Microsoft's statement and give the company the full benefit of the doubt, dismissing this all as a storm in a teacup - but I don't think it should ever be the consumer's place to give companies a free pass like that, much less the place of the press. Rather, it is Microsoft's responsibility to give a full and transparent accounting of its decisions and plans for UWP, and to respond to criticisms from Sweeney and others in a way that properly addresses their concerns. This is a slippery slope argument, but it's not a very long slope; there really is not very far to go from the situation right now to a much more closed, console-like platform, and it is Microsoft's responsibility to give consumers and developers proper, cast-iron guarantees about how the platform will evolve and develop.
"If the PC platform were to become nothing more than a more expensive games console in a less nicely designed box, it would lose almost all of the magic that makes it into such a vital and dynamic part of the gaming world"
There are models out there which implement much of what Microsoft wants to do in a way that's mostly acceptable to developers, after all. In fact, while Apple's iOS App Store is pretty much exactly the nightmare scenario for Windows developers, the company's OSX App Store makes a much more decent fist of balancing the openness of the platform with security concerns and a desire to make discovery and distribution more straightforward. By default, OSX users can download software from the App Store or from any other provider that is signed up as an Apple Developer (a cheap and simple process which involves cryptographically signing apps to tie them to a developer's identity, which has proven quite effective, though by no means foolproof, at preventing malware). Things only get complex if you want to run software that's neither from the App Store nor from a registered developer - then you need to access a control panel, enter a password and click through some warnings - but this covers only a minority of usage cases. The OSX App Store is by no means ideal, and like UWP, has been strongly criticised for the limitations it imposes on applications; but it was introduced as a new way of obtaining software for OSX, not as a replacement for any of the existing ways, and there's little evidence of any "slippery slope" towards OSX being a more closed platform overall.
That, perhaps, is an example Microsoft would do well to consider. Its goals for UWP are lofty, and the notion of software that's largely able to run cross-platform between PCs, consoles, phones and tablets is an interesting and worthy one - but along the way, it risks losing sight of what makes the PC and Windows ecosystems great in the first place. The PC is a brilliant platform for games not because of the powerful hardware you can put into the box, but because of the openness and freedom of the platform - openness and freedom that encourages innovation, experimentation and creativity, that by its nature permits modding and extension of beloved games by talented fans, and frees users to change or add to their gaming experiences in novel and powerful ways. If the PC platform were to become nothing more than a more expensive games console in a less nicely designed box, it would lose almost all of the magic that makes it into such a vital and dynamic part of the gaming world. Microsoft may have no plans or intention of slaughtering the goose that lays such golden eggs; but if it's going to keep hanging around the barn with a meat cleaver in its hands, it needs to start explaining itself much more clearly, directly and honestly than it has been up until now.