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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By Deb Shinder

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...