Windows Phone 7's splashy launch last week in New York City showcased impressive hardware from the likes of Dell, HTC, LG, and Samsung, and gave us a closer look at the brand-new operating system. Afterward, I was left with some questions and doubts, however. Besides a few missing essential features (ahem, copy and paste), Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 proposition lacks something far more important: apps. What good is a phone without apps? Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 Marketplace is not yet up and running. A few of the demo phones at the launch event had apps preinstalled, but the selection was pretty skimpy.
The positive news is that Microsoft has been working vigorously in this area to build relationships with developers and to drum up consumer interest by showcasing featured apps and games. Microsoft's development strategy is unique, and its handling app development appears to have both advantages and disadvantages. If the strategy works, Microsoft could become a real threat to Apple and Google in the apps arena. If it fails, Android and the iPhone may leave Windows Phone 7 in the dust.
Windows Phone 7: A Developer's Gamble
Apple has drilled into our heads the idea that there's an app for just about everything. And it's true: Apps are an essential factor in people's decision to purchase a particular smartphones. The more (high-quality) apps you have available to you, the better the phone. Right now, the iTunes App Store has about 250,000 apps and the Android Market follows with 90,000 apps. Next, as of September 2010, comes the BlackBerry App World with about 10,000 apps, and then WebOS with 5000 apps. Microsoft clearly has a long way to go and will need to catch up quickly.
Microsoft knows this, of course, and has been recruiting developers to its platform all year by offering cash incentives in exchange for building apps for the OS. In June, the company launched a developer contest to raise awareness of the platform and to generate more ideas for content. These efforts seem to have paid off: Microsoft has teamed with well-known developers and brands such as EA, eBay, Netflix, Slacker, and Twitter to help fill in the blanks in its apps offerings.
Todd Brix, senior director of Windows Phone Marketplace, stressed in the Windows Phone 7 blog that "apps and games are central to the value we're offering end users with Windows Phone 7." Microsoft has promised 1000 apps available when the phones go on sale. But a company that comes out swinging with big-name partners doesn't necessarily ensure its success by taking that approach. It isn't fair to compare Palm to Microsoft, for multiple reasons; but that beleaguered company's mobile OS, despite being well liked, was seriously hindered by an empty app store. Palm, which was acquired by HP last spring, also came out swinging with well-known apps and partners at launch; but as its App Catalog numbers indicate, it has experienced very little growth. And despite the advantages of a respected operating system and well-designed devices, sales of the Palm Pre and Pixi haven't been as high as the company hoped.
Microsoft needs to engender excitement among smaller app developers, too. But the fact that nobody other than reporters and Microsoft's developer partners has had a chance to play with Windows Phone 7 leaves some independent developers wary of investing time and money in the OS. A number of independent developers I've spoken with say that they're holding off on Windows Phone 7 development until they see how successful the OS is.
"No one [of my developer colleagues] has even looked at the SDK [software developer kit] as far as I know, but I think that's mostly thanks to the Kin disaster," says Christopher Head, an independent developer.
Microsoft's Development Environment: The Good and the Bad
Many of the Windows Phone 7 developers I've talked to are quick to praise Microsoft for making its tools easy to work with--and free. The tools package includes Visual Studio 2010 Express, an emulator, Silverlight, XNA Game Studio, .Net Framework 4, and Microsoft Expression Blend for Windows Phone. Laurent Bugnion, senior integrator for app developer IdentityMine, which developed the IMDb app for Windows Phone 7, notes that the free tools have helped speed up the development -- and approval -- process. The emulator is especially useful to developers because it allows them to preview their apps on a PC without needing a phone. He says that it does pretty much everything that the phone does; however, certain functions -- such as shaking the device to trigger an app feature -- won't work on the emulator.
Unfortunately, Microsoft isn't releasing all application programming interfaces (APIs) to developers right away. For example, all Windows Phone 7 devices have a compass inside, but developers won't have access to it. Many augmented-reality apps need a compass to work, so this is an regrettable exclusion. Microsoft says that it will release that API later on.
One big issue among developers is the fairly limited coding environment. Unless you're already a Microsoft partner and developing in Silverlight and XNA, developing on these platforms can be time-consuming and possibly costly.
On the other hand, in some cases restriction is good. Microsoft opted to not allow hardware manufacturers to build overlays over the operating system, as they can over Android. These overlays have been the focus of one of the biggest criticisms of Android, as they are blamed for the platform's fragmentation. Phones can't be updated to the latest version of Android until the overlays can work with that version.
Microsoft also requires hardware manufacturers to incorporate a number of specifications in their devices, including an 800-by-480-resolution display, a 1GHz processor, a 5-megapixel camera, and an accelerometer with compass.
Sam Altman, CEO and cofounder of Loopt, views Microsoft's hardware and OS requirements as a big plus for developers. "No developer wants to spend time on figuring out how to support ten different screen resolutions," he says. "We want to focus on developing new features and not deal with OS and hardware fragmentation."
Secret Weapon: Gaming
There's no doubt that iPhone is the king of gaming in the mobile OS wars, but Windows Phone 7 offers something unique and promising: Xbox Live integration. Xbox Live already has attracted a strong community of gamers, and bringing the Xbox experience to its mobile devices could prove to be a genius move by Microsoft. Even better, Microsoft can tap into its strong ties with the gaming developer community to deliver exclusive games for Windows Phone 7.
I don't own an Xbox, but my colleagues who do are impressed with how tightly Xbox Live on the phones integrate with the console. You get mobile access to your personal gaming information, including recent games you've played, your friends' game scores, your avatar, and any achievements you've unlocked.
Closed Versus Open App Store Ecosystem
Microsoft is allowing only Windows Phone 7 apps to be offered in the App Marketplace. It's an interesting position to take, as Microsoft has traditionally kept mobile apps for its Windows Mobile 5 and 6 platforms open to third-party stores. Microsoft appears to be following the lead of Apple, which has used the same policy at its App Store. Google shook up the apps game when it elected to allow Android apps to be available in its Market as well as in developer Websites and third-party app stores, like GetJar.
GetJar CMO Patrick Mork sees Microsoft's closed approach as detrimental to its success. "One of the reasons Android has had such mass adoption is that the distribution strategy is open. Consumers can get content off Android Market or download apps from GetJar."
IdentityMine's Bugnion disagrees and says that the closed system ensures a certain level of quality for apps. "They are really trying to make the experience for the end-user easier. I think it is a rather positive thing," he says.
Unlike Apple, Microsoft has kept its app approval guidelines transparent. The certification requirements -- a 27-page-long document -- are posted on the developer site. According to Bugnion, the requirements are reasonable. When his team's app got rejected initially, he knew exactly why and was able to fix the issue and resubmit the app quickly.
It seems as though Microsoft is trying to take the middle ground between Google and Android in the app development process. It is far too early in the game to make any predictions, but if Microsoft can hit the sweet spot that balances control and transparency, Windows Phone 7 might be a major success with both developers and consumers.