In this post we will preview what Microsoft's windows store will have to offer
One reason why Windows 8 is Microsoft's most ambitious OS yet is the introduction of a new class of applications: Metro style apps. Adorning the new Metro start screen and downloadable only from the Microsoft Store, Metro apps are the centrepiece of Windows 8 and are intended to be used on desktops, laptops and tablets.
Whether any app can successfully straddle anything from a 10in tablet touchscreen to a 27in desktop monitor is a matter of debate. Although Metro apps can adjust their content to suit various screen resolutions, they run in only two modes: full-screen or in a narrow bar down either the left- or right-hand side of the screen. There's no option to dynamically resize a window and overlap three or four applications across multiple monitors as there is with current Windows apps. Indeed, even if you run Windows S on a multimonitor setup, only one of them can display Metro apps.
The Windows 8 Release Preview gives us our clearest indication yet of how these Metro apps are taking shape. Many have been revised since the Consumer Preview, others are entirely new for this release. Significantly, they're all currently free, which suggests publishers will be holding back their finest wares until they can earn revenue from them.
Nevertheless, here we give you an insight into what we can expect to find in the Windows Store come the full launch later this year.
You probably won't need a cup of sweet tea after this revelation, but some of the most impressive Metro apps released so far are those produced by Microsoft itself. Windows 8 arrives with a selection of Metro apps preinstalled: Mail, Music, Video, Calendar, Maps, SkyDrive, News and Sports are all waiting on the Start screen from the moment the installation is complete.
Many of these apps also appeared in the Consumer Preview released in March, but most have been polished since. The Mail app, for example, now looks much cleaner, with clear visual separation between different inboxes (for Hotmail, Gmail and so on), an elegant two-tone design and thumbnail photos of the sender appearing alongside their message (where available), We'd go so far as to say it's one of the best default mail clients of any tablet OS, even if it's light on features by Windows client standards.
The Music and Video apps have also been revamped since the Consumer Preview, both now showcasing Microsoft's attempts to deliver media content to Windows 8 users in a similar manner to Apple iTunes and Google Play.
Alongside tiles of your own music and video collections, you'll find content from Microsoft's Store, allowing you to buy tracks or albums and buy or rent movies from the Zune store. Irritatingly, this currently uses the daft Microsoft Points currency used on the Xbox, However, there's an upside: you can also choose to play back movies or music via your Xbox, which cleverly allows a Windows tablet or laptop to become a companion device for your console. Indeed, there's even an Xbox Companion app in the Store that allows you to use your laptop/tablet to browse and open content on your console, although parts of it aren't yet fully functional.
News and Sport are the two newcomers, both delivering the latest stories from a range of sources local to your country in two smartly presented apps. The Formula 1 section of the Sports app shows how Metro apps can become attractive dashboards of information, displaying the latest race results, schedules and championship standings in clear tables. If that data could be updated live during races, Microsoft would have an outright winner on its hands. The constant ticker of the latest headlines that scroll through each of the apps' Metro start screen tiles often draw you in.
The disappointment among Microsoft's homegrown apps remains SkyDrive, It hasn't progressed since the Consumer Preview and it remains clunky. Click on a document stored in your SkyDrive and you're immediately thrown into an Internet Explorer browser window and the non-touch-friendly interface you're used to on the desktop, It's passable on a laptop/ desktop, but a poor experience on a tablet. Microsoft will surely improve SkyDrive integration when the Metro versions of Office arrive.
In addition to the barrage of Microsoft apps, there are a few social apps thrown in for good measure. The Messenger app provides instant messaging, using both Microsoft's Windows Live Messenger and Facebook. This app can be set to run in a thin window down one side of the screen, allowing you to continue conversations while running another Metro app or even a shrunken Windows desktop. Alerts of new messages pop up on the Metro start screen if you've pushed Messenger into the background.
However, Windows 8's real social hub is the People app. This is a one-stop shop for all your social networking services, including Facebook, Twitter, Linkedln, Google, Hotmail and your Microsoft Exchange contacts, Updates from all these services (where relevant) are blended into a single stream, allowing you to keep up with your friends' latest tweets and status updates from one smartly presented, horizontally scrolling screen,
However, the What's New section of the People app wastes too much screen space compared to regular Windows or web-based Twitter and Facebook clients: on a 12in laptop screen, only four tweets/Facebook updates appear at any one time; you can get as many as 40 using the TweetDeck client. Astonishingly, other third-party Twitter clients in the Windows Store, such as Rowi and Tweetro, are even more wasteful.
Profligate use of screen space isn't People's only problem. The app is dreadful at Contact deduplication, resulting in friends being listed twice if they have both Linkedln and Facebook accounts, for example. Contacts are listed in alphabetical order, but by first name instead of surname, with no option to switch, People also fails to distinguish between close contacts, such as friends and colleagues, and more distant acquaintances, such as the people you follow on Twitter. Consequently, you find Bill Gates curiously slotted in alongside your friend Bob from school in your enormous contacts list,
People's worst crime, however, is its Live Tile, which scrolls through photos of your contacts instead of providing potentially useful status updates. When many of your contacts are IT journalists, this leaves you gawping at an awful lot of familiar (if, obviously, oh-so ruggedly handsome) faces during the course of a day. The People app has potential, but it needs plenty of work before release time to be a real game changer.
News is one of the best-populated categories in the Windows Store. As mentioned above, Microsoft's own News app leads by example, providing an attractive digest of international and local news from a variety of sources, including the AAP, ABC online, The Australian, SBS, SMH and more. My News allows you to pick topics (say "Google" or "Carbon Tax") to track within a personalised newsfeed, although it falls short of iOS apps such as Zite, which base your newsfeed on past reading habits.
Several news outlets also have a presence in the store. However, most of the apps are of a type: normally designed as a grid of stories with a photo and a headline. Whether this is due to developers still getting to grips with Metro app layouts or Microsoft's strict presentation guidelines is hard to say, but the lack of variety is noticeable,
Yet Microsoft's Finance app demonstrates how Metro apps can be bustling and bursting with life. It marries the latest financial news with graphs and widgets showing live data from the major markets and a handpicked list of stocks. A matrix of major currencies makes it easy to get an exchange rate at a glance, and the Finance Live Tile scrolls through your selected quotes on the Start screen. Let's hope there are more apps of this ilk to come.
Photo And Video
If there's one thing the iOS and Android app stores are overflowing with, it's apps with which to edit and share photos. However, the Windows Store so far contains only a handful of such titles. Odder still, some of those that appeared in the Consumer Preview have now been removed, including the effective Ashampoo ImageFX.
What remains is unlikely to have Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg regretting writing that huge cheque for Instagram. The default Photo app does a decent job of displaying photos stored locally and across various online accounts, such as Facebook and Flickr, but little else,
The Awesome Picture app proves that Instagram-style "apply a thousand different retro filters to my photos" apps are perfectly possible within Windows 8, although it brings nothing new to the table, bar the option to import from and save photos to Microsoft's SkyDrive - an option available to all apps applying Microsoft's Share API (or Contract, as Microsoft calls it),
There's also a distinct lack of video-editing apps. CyberLink's YouCam enhances and records footage snapped from your device's webcam, and the frankly bizarre Composite app "allows you to remix your surroundings to create artistic compositions" - which basically means drawing over the top of live video shot from your webcam to create terrifying images of your own face. We're confident there's more to come from photo and video apps on Windows 8 - there can barely be any less.
Windows x86 obviously has a huge gaming heritage, ranging from legendary staples such as Football Manager through to cutting-edge 3D titles such as Crysis. The limited range of programming resources open to Metro app developers, not to mention the need to make apps run on the low-power hardware found in tablets, means Metro games are likely to have more in common with the titles typically found on tablets/smartphones than PCs, however.
Indeed, many of the early games in the Windows Store have been previously released on rival mobile platforms or even Google's Chrome browser store, Touch-optimised titles such as Cut The Rope and Fruit Ninja have previously been hits on iOS and Android, suggesting many developers will attempt to port their back catalogue to Windows 8.
With all the apps in the Windows Store currently free, developers may not be willing to part with their premium titles, but there's nothing to suggest Metro games are going to raise the bar for tablet gaming, Nightmares From The Deep and Dark Arcana are cutesy point-and-click adventures in the Monkey Island mould, and the rest of the Games section is largely filled with puzzle games. Music Maker Jam - a low-rent equivalent of Apple's GarageBand - is the most fun we've found in Microsoft's Store. We'll reserve full judgement until developers of the calibre of EA, Rockstar Games and Rovio have weighed in.
A more interesting class of Metro app will be web browsers, Microsoft has produced a Metro version of Internet Explorer 10, with a different touch-friendly interface to the desktop version, but it won't have it all its own way, Google and Mozilla are creating Metro versions of Chrome and Firefox.
The Metro version of Chrome that appeared in June was almost identical to the desktop browser, with very little done to make the browser's interface any easier to prod with a finger. Google stated it would spend time before the launch of Windows 8 "smoothing out" the UI and touch support.
Mozilla had yet to release a Metro version of Firefox at the time of writing. Its public plans state that the browser will implement the familiar "Awesome Bar", but make no mention of the third-party extensions that made Firefox a household name.