What is a Windows Universal app? [Updated]

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[Update: Microsoft has changed the name again. Read the April 3, 2015 post here.]

The software we use today, whether you call it a program, an application, or simply an “app”, almost always runs on top of an operating system. And most of these applications we use communicate with the operating system through a set of routines collectively called the application programming interface or (API). The Windows API is known as Win32, and almost 100% of the desktop apps we have ever run have used this set of API routines.

But in early June 2011, Microsoft revealed a new set of APIs called Windows Runtime, more commonly know as WinRT. As part of the rollout of this new technology, Microsoft demonstrated new “Metro” apps, which would interact with Windows in a very different way. These new apps would use the newly developed WinRT API set.

While it seemed that Redmond would never settle on a final name for WinRT-based applications (they have used “Modern UI”, “Windows 8 apps”, “Windows Store apps”, “New User Interface”, “Microsoft Design Language”, “Microsoft style design”, and simply “Modern.”), they have now selected a new name. With Windows 10, these apps are now called “Universal”, although it is anyone’s guess if this will be the “final” name.

These “Universal” apps have other characteristics that set them apart from what you may think of as “classic” Windows programs. Some examples of their new features.

  • They run in a sandbox – makes it harder to spread infections through them.
  • They’re are easily interrupted – helps minimize their power consumption and it’s unlikely it will freeze the entire machine.
  • One Version – one version of the application can run on multiple devices, as long as they run Windows with the same API.

WinRT API support started with Windows 8/8.1 and Server 2012. Current Windows phones run Windows Phone RT API, which is vaguely similar to the WinRT API. Soon Microsoft will provide the same API to all Windows devices.

Microsoft is taking a calculated risk with WinRT, as there is a low risk that developers may not support the technology. You can read more about WinRT here, and here.

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