According to the Windows Phone Developer Blog, Windows Phone has certified and published over 75,000 new apps and games over the last year. The platform, in my mind, is superior as a development platform; leveraging a proven run-time, well-documented and easy to use libraries, and is portable between various devices of various form factors. Last I messed around with the Windows Phone SDK, I was able to write a basic app that let a user search for recipe keywords and displayed the results in about 20 minutes; this was without reading any documentation, tutorials or code samples. Try that with iOS or Android development. Regardless of what you think about Microsoft as a company, their development tools and platforms are arguably worlds beyond anything else out there.
Guess what. None of this matters.
Microsoft’s attempt to muscle their way into the mobile OS market has been met with failure after failure because they’re constantly trying to play catch-up with the moving target of innovation. I live and breathe in the start-up world. I attend start-up meetings, groups and conventions. I’m on countless mailing lists and online bulletin boards focused on entrepreneurs. Almost no one I talk to is thinking about, or even interested in, building mobile applications on the Microsoft platform. A start-up’s resources are extremely limited, and most have little or no outside funding. No matter how fantastic the development platform is, there’s simply no reason to waste cycles building a completely separate code base for a platform that has about 3% of the market share. Even huge companies that actually do have the resources to build Windows Phone versions of their products are either choosing not to, or just do so as an experiment to test the waters. The result? Innovation itself moves at a faster pace than Windows Phone can adapt. In other words, all the cool new things coming out and making the headlines in the tech world are not coming out on the Windows Phone platform. If your platform is not adopted by the geeks, the innovators and the early-adopters, it has no chance of jumping that chasm into the main stream.
Microsoft is well aware of this problem and is working on genetically engineering chickens to lay those non-existent eggs. A lot of this comes in the form of either developing apps themselves (for example, Facebook and Twitter sharing is simply built into the OS) or paying smaller companies with the top apps to create Windows Phone ports. There are two problems with this approach, neither of which I have solutions for.
First, you’re still straggling behind the line of innovation. Only after an app has proven itself, has 50 million users, and makes the front page of TechCrunch and Wired would Microsoft begin to back such a port. Just now are we seeing things like Evernote or Rhapsody for Windows Phone, even though these apps are mainstream on other platforms. If you’re a geek with a Windows Phone, you’ll be waiting on the side lines while all your iPhone and Android friends enjoy all the cutting edge innovation coming out every week.
Second, the apps that do make it out for Windows Phone are the red-headed step children of the real thing. Sure, there’s a few Twitter apps for Windows Phone. None of which were actually written by Twitter. With Twitter’s reputation for screwing over devs, who knows if these apps will even continue to work in the future. Who knows if they might suddenly break when Twitter rolls out some great new feature that changes the way all their APIs work. Know what won’t break? The iOS and Android Twitter apps, written by Twitter.
I’m somewhat of a Yelp addict myself. Some how, this company has managed to install some sort of Pavlovian response in my psyche forcing me to check-in wherever I go. I actually really dig this. Sometimes, I’m trying to remember the name of a place I was at a few weeks ago, and can dig it up on my Yelp history. I also sometimes notice other people I know have checked in as well, or get Facebook comments on my check-in. Every now and then, there’s some sort of discount or coupon offered when checking in.
Is there a Yelp app for Windows Phone? Well, if you want to call it that. The Yelp app on Windows Phone is pretty much an insult to all things Yelp. You can’t check in, you can’t rate or write reviews; it’s basically a read-only interface to Yelp, and provides absolutely nothing you couldn’t get by visiting the website itself. There’s absolutely nothing mobile about it – just read the reviews!
It seems a lot of these so-called ports are simply an excuse to check off a column in a list. “Yup, we have a Yelp app – check!”
Now if I’m shopping for phones, I not only have to make sure there’s a Yelp app, but I also have to research the feature parity of this app by reading reviews or trying it out on a friend’s phone first. This leads to a total distrust of the porting efforts. If an app is ported simply to slap a brand name in the app store, but provides absolutely nothing that made that app successful, the port is a lie.
Imagine if Yelp came out with a new feature that let you take a picture of the menu at a restaurant and added star ratings to each menu item using augmented reality. We’d see this ported over to Windows Phone in about 3-7 years. Once again, Microsoft cannot play catchup as innovation marches forward.
It seems Microsoft’s attempting to build the world’s greatest mobile platform (which they might have succeeded at) and expects innovation to simply happen magically. In reality, there’s absolutely nothing urging the innovators to develop the new “it” app of tomorrow on this platform.
Microsoft needs to find a way to fuel innovation itself on this platform, not bribe the current top innovators to write these less-than-stellar ports of their hit iPhone apps. In fact, I’d say this is pretty much all they should be doing.
If I were Microsoft, here’s what I’d do:
- Drop all development fees completely. No more $100/yr fee to develop on Windows Phone. Update: The Microsoft BizSpark program will actually waive this fee for the first year. It’s a fantastic program which I encourage all start-ups to look into.
- Invest in start-ups that will develop cutting edge technologies on their platform. Start a $100MM VC fund for mobile innovators.
- Invest in technologies that make cross-platform development easier. Imagine if Microsoft invested in or acquired Xamarin, and turned Mono into a cross-platform phone development tool. Using Visual Studio, developers could write native apps in C# that targeted Windows Phone, Android and iOS using technologies such as Silverlight and XAML. Phone specific features could be abstracted with minimal platform specific code. It’s possible to make developing an app for both Windows Phone and iPhone easier than developing the same app for iPhone only.
- Push employees to build cool apps internally. Start a program where Microsoft employees can build cool apps while at work, publish the apps to the store, and get them promoted by Microsoft. Employees should be able to keep 100% of any revenue the app makes as a bonus.
The way things are going right now, I can’t see Microsoft even making a dent in the mobile and tablet market. They seem to be lagging far behind and focusing way too much on catch-up and way too little on innovation. I’d love to see that change, as the platform is awesome and the development tools are top notch. I guess only time will tell.