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Sports Illustrated’s Windows 8 app, one of Ratio’s projects, is part of an effort to go beyond boilerplate design.

The home of Ratio Interactive, in the heart of Seattle’s Pioneer Square, is at first glance pretty much what you’d expect from a digital agency focused on mobile apps — flexible workspaces, exposed brick walls, and plenty of Macs to go around.

But this place is different. In addition to working on iOS and Android, this development and design firm has quickly become one of the world’s biggest makers of apps for Microsoft’s Windows 8, with more than 40 titles in the Windows Store for clients including Condé Nast, Time Inc., Parents Magazine and many more.

Ratio CEO Paul Kim, President Kevin DIllon and Russ Whitman, chief strategy officer.

The situation is even more unique because Ratio had never developed software for Windows before. A chance encounter with a Microsoft manager at a startup barbecue in Seattle landed them an invite to the Redmond company’s first Build developer conference in 2011, which one of Ratio’s executives attended somewhat reluctantly at first.

But after seeing what Microsoft had in the works, they seized the opportunity to become a leading Windows 8 app developer.

“We realized, if we can push the boundaries and be a leader in this space not only from a technical standpoint, but especially in the design and presentation layer, then we have an opportunity to be at a place that not a lot of other agencies can get to,” said Russ Whitman, Ratio’s chief strategy officer. “There aren’t that many times in your career that you have a chance to be in that position.”

The move has given Ratio an edge in landing development deals with large companies that want a presence on Windows 8. The firm’s ongoing experience across mobile platforms also gives it unique insights into Windows 8, what Microsoft is doing right and where it needs to improve. This is a company that has witnessed both the success and failure of technology platforms, having also worked on apps for HP’s now-defunct TouchPad tablet.

So what have they learned about Windows 8? And what do they think about Microsoft’s chances? Here are some of the takeaways from my discussions with the company.

Windows 8’s uptake so far. Given the reports of lackluster Surface sales, the overall decline in the PC market, and skepticism about Microsoft’s long-term prospects, my first question was simple: What’s going on with Windows 8?

Paul Kim, Ratio’s CEO, said part of the reason Windows 8 hasn’t done better so far is that many end users haven’t yet seen the full benefit of Microsoft’s approach.

parents_tablet“There’s a value to using a touch screen and a keyboard at the same time that society hasn’t truly understood because they haven’t immersed themselves in those scenarios that well,” Kim said, describing how he uses his Surface RT on the plane.

Another issue is the relative strength of Windows 7, reducing the motivation for users to upgrade, especially without the buit-in turnover process that exists for users in the world of smartphone contracts, Whitman said.

However, Whitman added that he is confident Windows 8 will reach a critical mass. “I think it’s just a slower takeoff,” he said.

On the hardware side, he said, PC makers should welcome what Microsoft is trying to do to popularize touchscreens, giving consumers a new incentive to opt for higher-end machines.

What about the economic results for apps? Microsoft has tried to stand out in this area with more favorable terms for app developers. For companies that sell and distribute apps, another benefit of the Windows Store is that it doesn’t suffer from the overcrowding that exists on Android and iOS.

Still, this is clearly an area that needs to improve for Windows 8.

Whitman says “the early results look promising but are somewhat mixed.” Ratio can’t share financial details about specific apps that it makes for clients. In some cases the downloads are about what they expected, in other cases less. Overall trends are “in the right direction,” he said, but he noted that even without as much competition for attention, Windows 8 app makers still need to put an emphasis on marketing to make sure they stand out.

nasdaq_homeWhat has Microsoft done right? Windows 8’s focus on a “touch-first” experience has been key, Whitman said. “I think that’s a huge step forward. Now that they’ve done it, I’m almost surprised Apple didn’t do it first (on notebooks). They just kept going to better-resolution displays. I don’t think most end users get the value of a retina display. (Apple) missed an opportunity in a big way.”

The ability to make apps for Windows 8 and Windows RT using web development technologies such as HTML5 and Javascript has been a big boon internally at Ratio, letting them shift web developers to build Windows 8 apps.

The transparency and assistance from Microsoft during the app approval period has also been welcomed by Ratio’s developers, who are accustomed to the opaque Apple process.

What does Microsoft need to improve? Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 share a common core, but translating apps between the two Microsoft platforms remains a major pain — much harder than it should be.

“They have to advance that so that code can be written and much more easily translated to other platforms. It’s not all the way there yet. We’re able to reuse some of the code, but if you’re doing HTML-CSS-Javascript for Windows 8, you can’t apply any of that code to Windows Phone 8. You’d have to do a compiled app (XAML, C#) and then translate a percentage of that code across.”

Whitman adds, “We are actually catiously optimistic about Windows Phone. The opportunity is too big. They’ve got to get it right. This relationship between the Windows 8 desktop and phone is really important, we think. If they do get it right and make that development process simpler, then it’s a big win.”

Ratio’s Windows 8 “Essentials” productivity app running in snap view at left of screen.

Apps need to go beyond cookie-cutter: Microsoft’s “Modern UI” design approach is clean and simple, but it can also make Windows and Windows Phone apps look homogeneous.

Ratio, for its part, prefers to go beyond the standard squares and right angles, as demonstrated by its approach with the app bar in the Sports Illustrated app, among many other examples. Ratio has put together an online Windows 8 Design Handbook with resources and do’s and don’ts for other developers.

Another issue is the proper use of “snap view,” a Windows 8 feature that lets users run a smaller portion of an app off to the side, next to another app in a larger view.

“A lot of companies are doing snap view just as an also-ran,” Whitman said. “They just kind of throw something over there. We don’t think that makes a lot of sense. We want to understand how the user will be using the app in that space.”

Ratio’s apps include one that it developed on its own, a $1.49 productivity app dubbed Essentials, that is designed with an eye toward operating in snap view.

Bottom line, Whitman is glad he went to the first Microsoft Build conference to get an introduction to Windows 8 — despite dragging his heels at first.

“I think we’re a success story for Windows 8,” he said.

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