Windows

Hey Microsoft: It really is all about the apps

The public perception of Windows 8, and the success of the Metro interface, is likely to depend, to a great extent, on the quality of the apps.

This past week, I've been engaged in an experiment. I've been using a Microsoft Windows Phone as my primary mobile device. This wasn't a completely voluntary decision; it came about as a result of the untimely death of my Galaxy Nexus, which met a tragic end due to a comedic convergence of events involving a sudden high-pressure water leak, a wet dog, a bad case of myopia, and an unfortunately timed phone call from my lawn treatment service. The Nexus ended up dead as the proverbial doornail, with its screen shattered into about a million pieces.

Luckily, I had an unlocked Windows Phone, which I pressed into service as I mulled over what to do next. I thought I'd try actually living with it for a week, immerse myself in the new mobile Windows experience, and decide whether it could work for me on a day-to-day basis.

I had already expressed my fear back in February that Microsoft could lose us techies in their bid to win over consumers, and I went into this knowing that there would be moments of frustration over the simplicity of the operating system interface. However, something I didn't realize was what a difference an app makes.

How many apps are enough?

TechCrunch reported on March 22 that there are now more than 70,000 apps available in the Windows Phone Marketplace. That's in comparison to more than 450,000 in the Google Play Store (formerly the Android Market) and more than half a million in the Apple App Store. Based on sheer numbers, Windows Phone seems to be at a big disadvantage.

However, in a poll conducted by Droid Life back in February, only 10 percent of more than 7,000 people surveyed have more than 150 apps installed on their phone, with most saying they have fewer than 75. The maximum number of apps that can be installed on an iPhone is 2,160, but most users have far fewer. And the number of apps that most people actually use on a regular basis is generally lower than the number that is installed.

Personally, I have about 100 apps installed and use about 50 of them. So the Windows Marketplace has more than enough, in sheer numbers, for me.

The right stuff

With apps, as with anything else, it's not about having more stuff; it's about having the right stuff. I was happy to see that some of my favorite apps have indeed been ported over to Windows Phone. Runkeeper (an app that tracks your walks or runs via GPS) and MyFitnessPal (an app that tracks daily calories consumed and expended) were both available in the Marketplace.

Unfortunately, another much-used app, Our Groceries (which lets you maintain and share a shopping list), wasn't there. And when I went to the Marketplace to search for it, I got a very unhelpful response:

"We couldn't find a match. Try a different spelling or search term."

On my Android device, if I search the Market/Store for an app name and it doesn't find a match, it will give me suggestions that are close. I'm just saying!

The most important missing app, though, is Swype or something like it. Ironically, I became acquainted with Swype on a Windows Phone--Windows Mobile 6.x. When I moved to Android, I was happy to find it preinstalled on my Samsung phones, and I also installed and used it on my HTC Incredible.

When I got the Nexus, I was disappointed that Swype wasn't available for Ice Cream Sandwich (a new beta released in February does support ICS). But I quickly discovered TouchPal Keyboard, which functions essentially the same way as Swype.

So, when I search for "Touch Pal" in the Windows Marketplace, I do get alternatives this time, but they aren't even apps. They're Do You Wanna Touch Me, Classic Touch, and Touch Your Toes to Your Nose, all of which are songs.

Getting there is half the battle

Therein lies a huge quibble I have with the Windows Marketplace and the way search works on the Windows Phone. In Google Play, I can select the Apps category, and then when I search for a keyword, I get a list of apps that contain that word. Makes sense to me.

On the Windows Phone, I select Apps and then All search for a keyword, and I get not just apps but also songs that contain that keyword. What's up with that?

Having all those songs clutter up my searches for apps is maddening, and I haven't been able to find any way to change this behavior.

Form over functionality?

But just having my favorite apps ported over isn't enough. I also expect those apps to work the same way they did on my Droid. However, I quickly discovered that an app by the same name isn't necessarily the same. I'll be quick to say that just about every app looks nicer on Windows Phone. The design is more refined, elegant, and just plain pretty. Elements fly in and out dramatically. The first impression is "Wow." But then you get down to actually using the apps, and you find some important things are missing.

Let's take the Runkeeper app as a prime example. I use it almost every day when I walk my dogs around the neighborhood. I was impressed with its cleaner look on Windows Phone, and I absolutely love that when I pin it to the Start screen, its live tile displays the total miles I've walked that week. Very cool.

But then I took it for a walk, and I was disappointed by its silence. The Android version is very chatty. It notifies me of the amount of time I've been walking, the distance I've gone, and my average speed, at intervals I specify (such as every five minutes or every half mile). I can also set it to "autopause" so that it detects when I'm not moving and doesn't calculate that time into my average speed. Then when I start moving again, it automatically resumes. And it tells me when it's pausing and resuming.

On Windows Phone, there was no voice notification, and I searched the settings in vain for it, just in case it was merely turned off by default. Worse, there was no autopause feature that I could find either, so I have to manually turn the phone display on, roll up the Start screen, and then pause the app if I stop to rest or to talk with another walker I meet along the way. Then I have to remember that it's paused and manually resume it. I often forget one or the other of those steps and don't get an accurate account of my speed.

This might sound like a small thing, but it adds up to a decidedly less delightful user experience. And it's not just this one app. The Kindle app for Windows Phone, for instance, is subtly different, too. On Android, if I want to see what time it is while I'm reading, I just tap the middle of the screen to display the top notification bar that includes the time. When I'm reading on the Windows Phone, to see the time I have to leave the app completely and go back to the Start screen. Another "little thing," but it detracts from the experience.

And speaking of the Kindle app, the last straw that drove my decision to end my experiment and go shell out $650 for a new Galaxy Nexus was when that app just quit working for no apparent reason. It would no longer log me in to Amazon or show my books, even the ones that had already been downloaded to the device. Restarting didn't fix it. I had to uninstall the app (which, to Microsoft's credit, is drop-dead easy to do) and reinstall it. Of course, then I had to re-download my books from the Archives.

Hey, Microsoft

Don't get me wrong. You did a lot of things right with Windows Phone, and I know I'm not a member of your target audience (the average consumer). But many of those who are, will be coming to you from Android phones and will be expecting to be able to use the same apps they used on those devices. They're going to expect those apps to work the same way (not necessarily look the same, but have the same functionality). They're going to expect to be able to search and find the apps they want and not be shown songs they don't want when they're looking for apps.

I know Microsoft isn't writing those apps. I know which ones get ported and how well they work are determined by the application developers. I know the platform is relatively young and many of the apps were probably rush jobs, put out there on the premise that having something is better than having nothing. I know Microsoft has gone out of its corporate way to help developers, encouraging them to write apps and to make those apps good.

This problem may not be Microsoft's fault, but it is their problem. Users who try a Windows Phone and find the apps lacking will blame the Windows Phone platform, not the app developers. At the very least, I would suggest that Microsoft needs to learn from this and consider how to prevent the same thing from happening with Windows 8 apps. The public perception of that OS and the success or failure of the Metro interface is likely to depend, to a great extent, on the apps.

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About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

25 comments
RLKCon
RLKCon

Owner of iPad2 (iOS5), ASUS Transformer (ICS), and WP Mango on a Samsung Focus. (two were free for me) I can honestly express the opinion that she didn't want to spend the time to fully understand and fully test Mango, just like most people who blog and have their chosen preference. She indicates the issue with a couple applications, and that's fine, but on a quick search I found no less than 15 applications that will track fitness. Research is normally required to understand which one (if it exists) has the features you are looking for, but the reality is she didn't want to do the research (see my theory below). She just wanted the same application to work the same. This is a developer issue for the most part. I honestly don't blame her for wanting the application to work similarly. Compare it to a great steak at a restaurant; if you visit the same restaurant in a different city, and the same steak is sub-par, you will be disappointed for sure. I happen to find all three of the devices at the top of this comment have their advantages, disadvantages when compared to each other. The main reason WP phone has had a slow start is because of over exposure to bloggers with opinions, just like mine here. Honestly though after using Mango for quite some time I find it, fast, thorough for my needs, and far quicker to function with than either of the other OS'. Gmail works fine, Calendar combines my Google Cal and work Outlook cal perfectly (colors), OneNote works across the board now, with my major editing on my work based Windows environment. OneNote on a live tile works flawlessly as a shared shopping list. I have too many applications on my WP phone, and find myself forgetting about some of them. Rediscovering them is fun, but seriously I don't need them all. I have a theory that people who are happy with something and did research to customize what they have now, prefer not to have to research a new environment because of the time commitment. Part of me doesn't blame them one bit. I think the people who haven't "really" used WP should either try it thoroughly or quit writing about it, and let time and the user base indicate whether the product should be successful or not. Since ATT/Verizon/Others are apparently not being fair on their sales pitch, this along with the anti-everything blogging that you read online does far more damage to it's chances than anything. Polls indicate that a very large percentage of WP users are pretty darn happy with what they have. Lets face it, iOS is great, Android is great, and if some of us really took, no let me change that... "HAD" the time to really try WP you'd think it was great too. A quick note, I use the iPad for more fun things, ICS for more work related things, and WP for both. It's a competition, but honestly it's a competition between Apple, Google and Microsoft. The rest of us should just enjoy all of the "fun" and hard work we are able to accomplish with whatever device, or devices we have. Enjoy!

fhrivers
fhrivers

I don't get it. It seems to me that Debra broke her phone which didn't have a warranty plan on it and had to go with a phone she just happened to have and lo and behold things don't work the way she's used it to! Think I'll blog about it! How in the hell is this Microsoft's problem anyway? Shouldn't you be complaining to the app developer who didn't put as much effort into the Windows version? If your idea of a great phone is one that works exactly like the one you had, then get another Android phone.

lon.feuerhelm
lon.feuerhelm

Back to Windows 8 and Metro apps, I've been running the developer preview and consumer preview of 8 and been successful at loading all of my old apps from 7 and XP. But the issue I see is they have just taken the start menu and completed exploded it onto the desktop. My sneaking suspicion is that at launch then menu may be back and the metro style will be optional except on phones and tablets where touch screens are the norm. About the only person I know of with a touch screen desktop monitor is my optometrist and she frankly doesn't like it. (Bad app design)

gckondos
gckondos

While the iPhone and Android have thousands of apps, most of them are clones of other apps in so much as they do the same things. For example, how many "word" like apps are there. Or GPS apps.The number of apps is not as important as the quality of the apps. I suspect that Windows 8 is going to change the way we look at things for it is a true cross platform in that it works on tablets, computers and phones in the same way. I want good apps not a lot of apps.

blarman
blarman

I don't care what OS is on a device - be it a phone or a desktop - as long as I can use it to get my things done. That's the whole point, and Debra gave examples of where on one platform, she could get her things done where on the other she couldn't. Looks and fancy interactions thrill you for about 2 seconds. If you can't get anything done except fancy interactions, they quickly frustrate you. This is the key thing that application developers understand that Microsoft fails to. The OS is merely a platform for applications and it will continue to lose market share until it addresses this problem.

scott.gerber
scott.gerber

One thing I have noticed is the commentary on the lack of Apps. When Apple launched the iPhone how many apps were available? Android did not hit the ground running with thousands of apps. So why is the argument that WP7 does not have a gazzilon apps at the launch or even 1 year on. The app choices are growing, and like Apple and Android, there are some real bad ones. Do we actually count the Bible in 17 languages as individual apps? Let the OS grow like the iOS and Android - I have a Lumia 800 and the apps I use most all fit on the front screen!

bulk
bulk

This was something my wife and I also wanted. I downloaded the free MS OneNote app, created a new OneNote notebook on the free MS Live service, shared that with my wife, created a single OneNote page with checkboxes, pinned the page to the front screen and voila! A free list manager that synchronises across everywhere I can run OneNote (and that's available on just about every platform)! Took about 10 minutes to create. RS

AudeKhatru
AudeKhatru

Actually, I like all the comments. Mark, I've been playing around with an Android phone and I put it well below Windows Phone, which admittedly is a favorite. To me, Android feels old. Yes, complaints should go to the app developers, but she has a point. If your favorite apps aren't available, or don't work like you've gotten used to, it does have an effect on your opinion of the platform. And yes, MS is going to require you to get a live account, as stated that is exactly like Android forcing you into Google, but all of the things you mentioned work on WP7...well, most of them. Mail, no problem, Calendar and Contacts...yes, you can get those out of Google into WP7, easily and without any problems, Picasa, there is an app for that. Google Maps are replaced by Bing Maps, which work just as well. Google+ and Sky Map are the no shows. There is a skymap program for WP7, but I am not sure it works as well as Google Skymap. Google+ does not integrate with WP7 at this time, but that would be Google's fault, considering how well Twitter and Facebook integrate with WP7. It can be done, Google and MS just have to do a little work together.

adornoe
adornoe

the reason for dumping WP for Android? The fact is that, the focus on one app that follows a person while walking and running, is not what the huge majority of people, and I do mean the vast majority of consumers, are going to base their decisions on. A real and better comparison would entail a bigger set of the most used apps, and the comparison should include availability and features of each app, performance on the different smartphones, and actual usage. At the end, I'm pretty sure that, availability of 500,000 apps for iOS, or 400,000 for Android, might end up irrelevant, because, the vast majority of what people need and use would be nicely covered by perhaps around 10,000 apps or less in each platform. The number of apps now available is overkill, especially with a lot of duplicates and a lot of useless apps. The number of apps as a feature is seriously exaggerated.

technomom_z
technomom_z

Well, for me, they have to start with all the Google apps (Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Docs, Maps, Picasa, Google+, Sky Map to name a few) that I have come to depend on and that I have lots of time and effort on to personalize. No, I'm not going to port 5 years of GMail, Contacts and Calendar over to Live no matter how nice MS asks.

Skruis
Skruis

But like you said, the problem was primarily with apps developed by 3rd parties...if you want quality ports of your favorite apps, doesn't it make more sense to complain to them unless for some reason, you're expecting Microsoft to take it upon itself to rip-off the apps that are popular on iOS and Android and create identical copies for their own OS? Some of the issues with your running/walking app may be related to immaturity of the SDK. I myself haven't looked into it but the app developer may not have included the functionality because of limitations with the SDK and if that's the case, that's a legitimate complaint to make to Microsoft but to compare the open ended Android SDK to the tightly controlled WP experience would be a mistake...the approach is entirely different so there's the potential to always have wide differences in ports of the same title across the OS's.

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

From what I have read and heard about Windows-based phones, the OS itself works fairly well, but the user experience is still not on par with Android and iOS. Is that perception correct? What can Microsoft do about it?

blarman
blarman

IMO, Debra took an honest look at the two devices and the differences between them. But she's right: the app differences (whether they be faults of the App developer or problems with Microsoft's SDK) ultimately still reflect poorly on Microsoft. Fair or not, people are only going to switch devices if Microsoft's has something to offer they can't get on the others - whether its the low price or a better app. Microsoft has plenty of resources, and coming late to the game means they will have to spend more to prove their device is as good (or better) than the competition.

rpollard
rpollard

The point she was making was that they need to head this off before quality of apps is a problem. She never said if this one app doesn't work it'll be the end of WP but instead was using an example of how it could become a problem if this is the trend.

rpollard
rpollard

You understand this but the average consumer won't. They don't care about the quality of the SDK. As she stated, they will blame the phone. I agree with her, MS needs to address it since it will fall back on them not the developers.

adornoe
adornoe

Android and iOS, and with Windows 8 Metro, it will leave iOS and Android feeling as if they were ancient history. ;) So, while you are partly right, it's only because MS doesn't make smartphones. But, you're wrong when it comes to the OS, which puts Microsoft ahead of the game. Now, in the case of apps, Microsoft doesn't control that part of the ecosystem, but, there will be huge additions to that list of apps in the coming months. Also, one has to wonder about current state of app development for Windows Phone 7, since, most developers are expecting that, they'll have to modify or recode for Windows 8, and perhaps they're holding off in creating apps for a "dying" OS, that being WP7, and that's where Microsoft has failed, in letting people know that, whatever works for WP7, will or might be able to be ported to Windows 8 smartphones. So, Microsoft is not completely blameless for the lack of apps, or the lack of communication to the developer community.

adornoe
adornoe

on one app. She didn't mention or go into detail about other apps, which is something that's required in order to be making a salient point about a system. A generic negative statement is not proof of anything, especially when it's focusing on a very simple issue of one app. That's not a way to judge the bigger system.

blarman
blarman

"Then, the carriers can be enticed, like Sprint was enticed with $20 billion." Exactly. My original point was simply that because Microsoft is currently low on the totem pole, they shouldn't have any expectations that the carriers will bend over backwards to support them - not that that support would never come - and that Microsoft would have to actively promote their products in the market for this to happen, ie Microsoft will have to shill their own products rather than rely on other companies to do it for them. I don't disagree that Microsoft's size and cash reserves can make it a player in virtually (bad pun, I know) any market - they just aren't a CURRENT player. Once they invest in marketing their product, I fully expect it to gain market share. The trick is that unlike the Xbox where contracts with the game manufacturers were the key, Microsoft is going to have to find something to drive excitement about Windows Phone adoption - the equivalent to Xbox's Halo. So far, there really hasn't been anything that close, and Apple and Google are working hard to keep it that way, which means that Microsoft will have a much tougher time than it did with Xbox.

adornoe
adornoe

and it just takes time. WP7 is still only about 1 1/2 years old, and like they say, "Rome wasn't built in a day", and so, the apps are coming, and in another year or so, there should be around 200,000 and counting, and like I said, persistence counts for a lot, and once the developers are convinced on the staying power and growing power of Microsoft, the apps ecosystem could develop into one that's bigger than those of Android and iOS, and perhaps bigger than both of those combined. Then, the carriers can be enticed, like Sprint was enticed with $20 billion. Perhaps they don't need to give away so much money, but, in time, with the number of apps growing and with Windows 8 coming along, the carriers can't continue being in denial about the 800 pound gorilla in the room.

blarman
blarman

Yes, I HAVE an Xbox, the same one we had to send back for the heat-sink problem. The point there, however, was that it wasn't the hardware that made it popular, it was Microsoft's deal with EA (Halo, duh) that made that product a success. Again, it was all about the APPS! Without those, Xbox would have been a huge money waster - it was way behind both the Nintendo Wii and the Playstation in the market, but - yet again - nobody buys gaming boxes (and you can insert PC's, servers, etc. here) for the platform, they buy them for the GAMES/APPS. Microsoft needs to find Halo for Windows Phone 7 to drive up its market share. Until it does that, my crystal ball says that the market just isn't going to care much. That doesn't preclude Microsoft from flooding the market with $1 billion worth of products, gimmicks, and advertising (which IMHO would be a good idea for them). My contention was that the carriers aren't going to shill for Microsoft when there are well-established players already with a commanding lead.

adornoe
adornoe

No company can be as pushy as Microsoft if they didn't have a history of accomplishments behind them. Nobody can count them out, even if they seem to struggle in a certain sector, because, MS has been known to persist and come out a winner in the end. Ever hear of XBOX? It was a big money loser for MS for many years, and they kept at it until they took over the lead and now, they're the most respected brand in gaming systems. So, a few years of lackluster performance in the mobile markets won't mean that much to Microsoft, especially when they're the ones taking the bigger risks to unify the whole set of computing form-factors. Persistence, and great products and services. Without all of them, nobody ever wins. And, Microsoft may be down for the moment in the mobile arena, but, the battle is a long-term one.

blarman
blarman

Simply because Microsoft has an OS doesn't put them ahead of the game. The Windows Mobile OS doesn't allow them to leverage past applications - they all have to be rebuilt specifically for that platform. This is one of the reasons Vista took such a big hit - it made a whole ton of programs just cease working (and that includes so-called compatibility mode). As you said yourself "A device with a lackluster OS, won't be as successful as one that is intended to do the better job" and I completely agree. But there is also a small matter of business. Microsoft wants to see Microsoft succeed. Verizon only cares about Microsoft succeeding if they get to cash in on it, too. Same with all the carriers. They don't give a rip about Microsoft unless they get business out of the deal as well. And right now, Microsoft is running a distinct and very small third place in the mobile device market. The carriers would be nuts NOT to concentrate on the market leaders (iPhone and Android) because that is where 90%+ of the market is. It has nothing to do with how big a company currently is, it's about market share. When Microsoft captures 20% of the market share, I fully expect carriers to welcome them. Until then, however, they're a small fish in a HUGE pond that is getting bigger every day. They certainly can do it, but it's going to take time and effort (ie MONEY) on Microsoft's part to prove they deserve a seat at this table. Reputation isn't going to do the trick.

adornoe
adornoe

then it gets to set the tone for a lot of that industry. Seems evil and arrogant and unfair, but, it's the reality. A company as big and as into everything as MS, will "dictate" the market direction for many products and services, including the OS and applications, and how they are to work with one another. The OS, is probably the biggest feature of any hardware/software combo which comprises a device. A device with a lackluster OS, won't be as successful as one that is intended to do the better job. Thus, if Windows 8 turns out to be crap, it won't matter how big MS is, but, MS will, undoubtedly, go back to repair the damage, because, they can't afford to pull out of smartphones or tablets.

blarman
blarman

...Why does the OS put Microsoft ahead of the game? Any computer science student can write an OS - most have to prior to graduation. Does that give them a leg up in the market? Of course not. Why? Because it is the applications that determine whether or not a product is useable. The OS is merely a platform to deliver apps. If this were not the case, iPhone and Android would never have gotten into the market and we would STILL be waiting for an MS OS for portable devices that was worth anything. (And please don't even try to persuade me CE was more than a piece of junk.) Now if you had said that their developers' community is a major asset, I would completely agree. The problem is that the Windows Phone OS is so different from the others that any previous applications still have to be completely re-written in order to launch them - again completely undermining the whole OS-centric model. Can it be done? Absolutely. But again, with Microsoft being the last to market, it means that the bar is getting set by some other company, and Microsoft is now the one with something to prove. They can't simply just rely on their retail channels and brand strength because the competition is already established as the major players in the market.

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