Microsoft and its mobile partner Nokia are doing their best to keep the Windows Phone platform afloat in a sea dominated by Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android offerings. While the mobile devices from Apple and Google form enough of an obstacle for Windows Phone to overcome, it’s the app arena where Microsoft is finding its biggest challenge.
The mobile market is red-hot at the moment. Manufacturers are releasing devices that offer improved design and functionality at a rapid pace, and the availability of apps that extend device functionality is adding to the craze. In case you have been living on another planet for the past few years, apps, or applications are software that provide valuable functionality on mobile devices in the form of entertainment, productivity, news, games, and more. Many consumers are finding that apps can become useful in their everyday lives, which pushes their desire to upgrade their standard feature phones to more advanced smartphones. The fact that Apple and Google boast massive catalogs of apps helps them greatly when attracting consumers to their platforms.
Microsoft and Nokia have acknowledged the important role apps play in the smartphone race, and have responded with the announcement that they will invest 18 million euros into AppCampus, a mobile app development program based at Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland. The investment will cover the next three years and shows the companies’ dedication toward boosting Windows Phone’s app catalog.
Windows Phone does offer certain highly popular apps such as Evernote, Facebook, Foursquare, and Twitter, but it’s the lack of interest from developers of smaller apps that is hurting the platform the most. The Windows Phone Marketplace surpassed the milestone of 65,000 apps in its catalog, putting it past Research in Motion’s BlackBerry store. While that number may sound impressive to the casual observer, it pales in comparison to the Apple App Store and Google Play, formerly the Android Market. Both of those stores, according to app researcher Distimo, tout app catalogs with selections numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
Windows Phone has less time in the app game compared to iOS and Android, but that doesn’t mean it will necessarily catch up as time goes by. A recent survey from IDC and Appcelerator found that only 37 percent of app developers had interest in creating Windows Phone apps, a drop from the previous survey. The iPhone, on the other hand, garnered 89 percent developer interest and Android received 79 percent interest. Pierre Ferragu, analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, said, “Mobile developers’ interest for the Windows platform has been for the least very lukewarm over the last two years, with no sign of improvement.”
Microsoft and Nokia did show some promise, beginning with the launch of the Windows Phone 7.5 operating system, aka Mango. The new OS received solid reviews, and Nokia followed up that success with the release of Mango-based Lumia smartphones towards the end of last year. Lumia phones offer eye-catching designs and an interface laced with user-friendly tiled icons.
That’s not enough, however, as the lack of apps for the platform is stunting its popularity with consumers. For Windows Phone to break out of its slump, Finn Christian Lindholm, a partner at Fjord, a digital design agency in Helsinki, believes it must overcome two problems. The first problem to overcome is the stagnant Windows Phone sales that worry app developers. The second is the lack of interest from consumers due to a shortage of available apps. “They need to break the Catch-22 before there is enough volume and natural pull,” said Lindholm.
According to Strategy Analytics, Microsoft’s already measly smartphone market share dropped to 2 percent last quarter, a drop from 3 percent a year ago. The company held 13 percent of the market four years ago. Making its situation worse was the loss of Brandon Watson, Windows Phone’s former chief of developer relations, to Amazon.
The AppCampus investment is a step in the right direction, as Microsoft and Nokia hope it will inject some much needed momentum into the development of Windows Phone apps. The program promises to offer coaching, support, and funding for app developers, which should create some much needed interest in the platform.
AppCampus should help, but will it be enough? Many developers fear the extra work needed to create apps for a new platform, especially when they already have their hands full with Android and iOS development.
Jeff Janer, co-founder and CEO of Springpad, the company behind the content storage and sharing app of the same name, described the decision-making process developers face: “When considering a new platform, we look to balance cost of development and support against potential return in terms of market opportunity and the ability to cost-effectively reach the market.” Janer said his company has no plans to develop for Windows Phone. Perhaps over time Microsoft and Nokia can change his mind.
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