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Search Based Apps Broken in Windows 8.1

by Jonathan Allen on Sep 10, 2013 |

In Windows 8.0 there was a major emphasis on cross-application consistency. A cornerstone of this is the “Charms” feature, a way to expose common tasks the same way for every application. An example of this is the Search Contract, which allowed Windows Store applications (i.e. apps) to announce that they were searchable.

In Windows 8.1, apps lose their ability to participate in out of app search. Instead users only get the default system search results and, optionally, search results from Bing. For some applications this won’t be a big deal, either they don’t rely on search or have their own search box in the UI.

For others such as the official Wikipedia app, this change significantly degrades the user experience. In-app searching is still possible, but the feature is somewhat hidden. After opening the search charm and selecting some text, the user then has to click on the “Everywhere” text and select the currently running application from the bottom of the list. In this case, “Wikipedia”.

The user has to be careful to not press the “Enter” key before selecting the application. If they do, the user leaves the application and either the first item in the results or the default search results open full screen. Once outside of the application, the option to search inside the previous application is no longer available.

The universal search feature may decide to show an application-specific result. This behavior is inconsistent, the results don’t always appear, and often requires scrolling to the right to see the app-specific result.

Companies with the developer bandwidth to update their applications can of course retroactively add search boxes, redesigning their UI as needed. With a market that is already questioning Microsoft’s commitment to third party developers, this seems to be a rather risky decision.

Further compounding the issue is what Microsoft is replacing app-based searching with. Instead of deep searching in popular applications like Wikipedia, users will instead be presented with advertisements. David Pann explains,

Bing Ads will be an integral part of this new Windows 8.1 Smart Search experience. Now, with a single campaign setup, advertisers can connect with consumers across Bing, Yahoo! and the new Windows Search with highly relevant ads for their search queries. In addition, Bing Ads will include web previews of websites and the latest features like site links, location and call extensions, making it easier for consumers to complete tasks and for advertisers to drive qualified leads.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that in-app searching using the search charm was no longer possible.

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inaccurate by Guy 1126455

This article missed the critical difference in options available searching from outside the app vs inside the app. Yes, if you invoke the search charm from the desktop or Start screen, it no longer offers the option to select and search via a specific app's search contract. However, while you have the target app running in foreground, the search charm will offer the option of contract-based search from that given app, even if the app doesn't provide its own search box in-app: from the Search charm, you just have to click/tap on the "Everywhere" to get the dropdown menu of (a short list of) options; at the bottom accompanied prominently by the app icon is your option to do the contract-based search.

I just tried it and it works just fine with MS's own updated Search Contract SDK sample built with VS2013 Express Preview for targeting 8.1; even the "start typing to automatically invoke search charm" scenario works (and for that, it looks like the system will go directly to contract-based search and not the "everywhere" default). I just tried the same with the existing Win8 Wikipedia app from Windows Store, running on 8.1, and again it works perfectly fine including "type to automatically start app search" behavior.

So basically, to do the same from outside the app, you now need to launch the app first and then perform the search afterwards in that app (via charm or via in-app UI), whereas before you bring up the search charm and select the app (which then launches the app for you).

You can argue that the "new way" makes it slightly harder to discover/access the old search behavior, or that users may get confused with MS changing such fundamental behaviors over and over. But to say it "renders the application useless" is wrong. If you find an app working in Win8 that you can no longer do contract-based search in 8.1 as described, I suggest following up on MS's developer forums for support.

Re: inaccurate by Jonathan Allen

I write software for a living. So do many of my colleagues. When originally writing this article none of us managed to figure out all of the tricks needed to actually get app-specific search results.

Yes this news report was originally incorrect. But for crying out loud, if a bunch of IT professionals can't figure out where they hid the search results what hope do regular people have?

And at the end of the day the conclusion is still the same. Any app that was using the search charm needs to be rewritten to include its own search control.

Re: inaccurate +1 by Alex Casamassima

What should also be noted that, if the "type to start searching" paradigm is becomes a nightmare in tablet mode, as you have to summon a secondary menu off the search charm to enable a keyboard on a screen where keyboard input is not evident.

It is, without a doubt, important that the first context of search be that of active apps, heck, they can even offer both. But to render the win 8 search charm almost as useless as the windows phone search is a step in the wrong direction.

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