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." 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.
In Video: A First Look at the Windows Phone 7 OS
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.