How outraged should you be about ads in Windows 8 apps? Not at all

Repeat after me: There are no ads in Windows 8. Yes, you can find ads if you look closely at a group of consumer apps from a separate Microsoft division. But you'll be surprised to learn the real reason why those apps are in every copy of Windows 8.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

In case you didn’t get the memo, we’re all supposed to be outraged that a handful of the built-in Windows 8 apps are ad-supported.

The sponsors of this movement are bipartisan. From the Mac Party, John Gruber examines the very idea of this "built-in advertising" and calls it “gross.” (Hilariously, his link for the supporting story sent Daring Fireball readers to a site that uses obnoxious auto-playing video pop-up ads.)

And representing the Grand Old Windows Party, Paul Thurrott is outraged, I tell you, that any part of Windows 8 has ads. It “cheapens” the OS, he argues. He believes that those ads exist to allow Microsoft to sell Windows 8 upgrades for a mere $40, in the belief that those ad revenues go toward the Windows division’s bottom line.

Paul and John are both mistaken. Those apps aren’t part of Windows 8. They are part of a separate Microsoft project specifically designed to create showcase apps that will “inspire Windows 8 app developers.” (I’ll get to those details later in this post.) Although I'm sure the head of the Online Services Division would love it if I were wrong, I am willing to bet those apps will not be money-making machines in and of themselves.

So here’s the amusing thing. Most of my online work is paid for by ads. Paul Thurrott’s newly redesigned Windows SuperSite (looks great, by the way) is paid for by ads. Gruber’s site is paid for (handsomely, if rumors are to be believed) by a single ad placed discreetly alongside the content on his blog, and by ads in his RSS feed and podcasts.

But the Windows 8 apps are different, right? Well, no. I’ve gone methodically through the Windows 8 apps collection. Each app typically has one discreet ad situated to the side of all content. Just like Daring Fireball, except in color and with pictures.

The screen shots that Paul published (which were similar to those in the article Gruber linked to) are cropped to show a tiny portion of the actual app space. If you see the full app, you get a very different picture.

Here, for example, is the Windows 8 News app, as viewed on a typical 1366x768 screen. The total width is 8,967 pixels, or seven full screens in landscape mode. Imagine swiping or scrolling through all these stories before you see the single ad at the far right:

News app ads - small

(To see the full-size image, go here and click View Original in the app bar at the top.)

That is one ad, positioned alongside a wealth of content. It is not, by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, obtrusive or offensive. The ad would be right at home on any top-shelf destination on the web.

The other ad-supported apps are like that, too, even on humongous monitors. Here, for example is the San Francisco Giants section of the Sports app, as seen on a display with 2560x1440 resolution:

Sports app ads - small

(Full-size image here.)

So, these are gorgeous, information-dense apps. That view of the Sports app is one tiny part of the MLB category, which in turn is one of eight sports represented (including soccer). That one view has more than 60 tiles, each leading to a news story, a game recap, or a player's profile. You have to go past all 60 of those tiles before you see the lone ad.

The news app takes you through nearly 40 stories in seven categories, from 29 big-name mainstream media sources.

Maybe it would be instructive to break out Windows 8 into two groups: those that don’t have ads and those that do.

Windows features and apps WITHOUT ads

  • Windows desktop
  • Windows desktop utilities and accessories (WordPad, Paint, File Explorer, etc.)
  • Mail
  • Calendar
  • People
  • Messaging
  • SkyDrive
  • Photos
  • Internet Explorer
  • Store
  • Camera
  • Reader
  • Bing*
  • Maps*
  • Music**
  • Video**

* The Bing app does not include display ads, and it did not not mix ads in with any of my test searches. Some search terms result in text ads (shown in green) that are the same as sponsored ads at the top of web search results. I did not find any ads in the Bing-powered Maps app.

** The Music and Video apps have store components alongside sections for viewing, managing, and playing your library, but they don’t include any ads, as far as I can tell. (The free version of the Xbox Music streaming service does have audio ads, which go away if you have an Xbox Music Pass.)

That’s one helluva lot of Windows 8 that doesn’t have ads. So which apps have the gross/cheap tawdry ads that are inspiring these complaints?

Windows apps WITH ads

  • Games
  • News
  • Finance
  • Sports
  • Weather
  • Travel

OK, Games is the front end to managing your Xbox Live account. It includes a console where you can manage your account, customize your avatar, see your friends’ activity, and view your own game-playing. It also has ads mixed in with the store content. You’ll find similar ads on the corresponding Xbox Live web page and on the console. I agree with Paul that paying Xbox Live Gold members should have an option to turn off ads. But these hardly have anything to do with Windows.

And that leaves us with the five remaining Bing apps. Four of them (News, Sports, Finance, and Weather) contain constantly updated information from news agencies, sports bureaus, stock exchanges, and weather service providers.

The fifth app, Travel, aggregates data from Fodor’s, Frommer’s, and TripAdvisor to create guidebooks for destinations. You can use Bing-powered search boxes to find hotels and flights, a service for which Bing no doubt gets a cut.

Bing, which is a part of Microsoft’s Online Services Division, is paying for that content. The division has also hired an editorial staff to curate the content in these apps. Here’s a current ad for someone to manage the Finance Apps. They’re looking for “an experienced individual with a background in Finance website programming or magazine development to lead … next-generation Apps on new devices and form factors. “

As another current ad notes, these apps are in a group by themselves, called the Bing Application Experiences (“AppEx”) Product Group (which Mary Jo Foley profiled back in August):

The AppEx team is developing a suite of Microsoft apps for Windows 8 that will be preinstalled on every image of Windows -- these apps include News, Finance, Sports, Travel and Weather. The AppEx team is at the leading edge of innovation in creating consumer experiences for Windows 8. Our goal is to build best of class apps in key vertical segments to inspire Windows 8 app developers and provide instant value to consumers of Windows 8. [emphasis added]

Got it? Those apps are interesting, useful, and beautiful because their goal is to give Windows 8 users some valuable apps right out of the box and to give the developer community some ideas. (Including ideas about how not to junk up an app with cheap, ugly or gross ads.)

They are essentially third-party apps, from a favored developer that happens to work for the same parent company as the Windows division.

Ad-supported news apps are nothing new. Even paid subscribers to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal apps on Windows 8 and on iOS see ads along with their content. (The same is true on the web and in print.)

Apple tried to do something similar in early 2011, partnering with Rupert Murdoch on The Daily, an iPad-exclusive daily newspaper. At the high-profile launch event with Apple exec Eddy Cue, Murdoch said the split between ad and subscription revenue would eventually go “towards that magic 50/50.” The Daily is still around, although John Gruber says he gave up on it after three days.

Any Windows 8 user can, of course, avoid these ads by simply not opening the apps in question. The apps can even be uninstalled completely.

Meanwhile, the iPad doesn’t even have a default weather app. Much less one that shows you the 10-day forecast, hourly forecast, multiple satellite and radar maps, and historical data before you get to an ad.

The money from these apps isn’t subsidizing the short-term discounted price of Windows 8, as Thurrott mistakenly believes. It’s going into the Online Services Division. And there’s no indication of any kind that ads are going to appear in Windows itself. Could someone at Microsoft decide, someday, to turn Windows into an ad-supported product? Sure. Anything can happen, I guess. But that's not the direction Microsoft appears to be heading.

And this handful of beautifully designed and incredibly useful apps is not even on the same continent as that "slippery slope" Thurrott is worried about.

Editorial standards