Instagram has finally arrived for Windows Phone, and for Microsoft it's a very big deal. The app has been the touchstone example for the platform's issues getting first-party titles. However, Instagram on Windows Phone lacks support to record video, making it an example of a different sort: Microsoft is doing better getting apps, but there's still a way to go before the ecosystem reaches full parity with iOS and Android.
Microsoft claims Windows Phone is finally on the rise, thanks in part to apps like Instagram. After three years of sales, its mobile OS is starting to make a dent in the smartphone market. Nokia’s own Lumia sales hit a record of 8.8 million in the latest quarter, and IDC reports that Windows Phone shipments have increased by 156 percent from last year to reach 3.6 percent of all smartphones shipped worldwide in the latest quarter. Microsoft's senior Windows Phone marketing manager, Casey McGee, tells The Verge that "we do feel like we’re turning a corner here."
McGee appears to be on a mission this holiday to alter the perception of Windows Phone and truly cement it as the third player. The numbers back Microsoft’s position, but the app argument continues to plague the OS as consumers search for their favorite apps and games and find the Windows Phone Store rather lacking. "We really want to take this opportunity to make sure people really see the breadth and depth of the offering, and frankly see if we can change some of that feeling that the app ecosystem is just holding us back, because frankly the data doesn’t tell us that," says McGee.
Microsoft wants to alter the Windows Phone perception
Microsoft’s data includes an analysis of Apple's App Store against its own Windows Phone Store. "Of the top 50 applications today that both we and iPhone share in common on our platform, the applications on Windows Phone are actually rated higher: 3.7 vs. iPhone with 3.6," explains Microsoft’s Todd Brix. That incredibly small margin is just a blip on the radar, but Microsoft genuinely believes features like Live Tiles, Kid’s Corner, and lock screen integration are helping even out the rankings. Microsoft’s app developers might be doing a reasonable job against iOS on shared apps with unique features, but there's less competition on Windows Phone for apps and favorable reviews for those that fill in the blanks.
A recent analysis by Windows Phone developer Nick Landry shows that out of the top 100 mobile apps, Windows Phone is still lagging behind iOS and Android significantly. Despite the gap, Microsoft’s platform has improved on the situation since launching Windows Phone 8 a year ago, with its claim of having 46 out of the top 50 apps from rival platforms at the time. Vine recently launched for Windows Phone, and the software maker is revealing that Waze and Instagram are both available today, with Mint to follow shortly. Of most significance is clearly the Instagram app. Microsoft and Nokia have both battled to bring the app to Windows Phone, and it has been a particularly sticky point that has prevented some consumers from even considering Windows Phone.
Instagram is super important for Windows Phone's app situation
Instagram "is super important," admits McGee. "When we look at the sort of apps that people look for in the Store it is far and away the number-one searched-for title in the Windows Phone Store. That is a big add, and that is a core reason why we feel like we’re turning a corner and reaching that critical mass." Unofficial Instagram apps may have launched for Windows Phone previously, but commitment from a big name like Facebook is essential for Microsoft.
While the key apps need to be addressed and Microsoft is gaining ground there, McGee doesn't believe the overall number matters. "Ninety-five percent of people, regardless of platform, feel like they’re gonna get what they need if they have 100,000 apps," explains McGee, and Windows Phone has surpassed that stage already. That's not necessarily a good thing, though. There are still hundreds of fake apps, and a quick search for CNN highlights Microsoft's real struggles with its store. Despite this, McGee claims Microsoft's "customers are as happy with apps as Android customers."
McGee also dismisses the idea that Windows Phone users miss out because of a lack of apps. "I think there’s sort of this perception out there with some that Windows Phone customers are feeling something is missing or not having the experience that they want, and it’s really quite the opposite," he claims. "We’re seeing positive reactions from customers, higher-rated apps, and that has a lot to do with the fact that we’re catering to a different ecosystem." Microsoft has done well to build Windows Phone out with its focus on photography alongside Nokia, but it's still struggling to complete app-for-app.
Microsoft needs to ensure apps stay up to date
Even so, the app argument will continue until Microsoft plugs every significant hole, including Pinterest, Dropbox, a host of news apps, and the all-important games that make rival platforms appealing. Microsoft’s main challenge, alongside the app gap, is to now ensure the big names it attracts are doing enough to keep their apps up to date. Spotify is a good example of an app that’s available on Windows Phone, but where the experience is nowhere near close to the polish and features provided by the iOS version. The Twitter and Facebook apps are at near parity, but new features still debut first on iOS and Android. Even the Vine app that launched on Windows Phone recently doesn’t include the multiple-session support that’s available on iOS and Android. A lack of video sharing for Instagram just highlights this even further. It might not be immediately apparent to Windows Phone users who aren’t familiar with the iOS and Android versions of their favorite apps, but it’s noticeable if a friend has an iPhone with apps that are more feature complete or games that simply aren't available. It's not just noticeable — it's disheartening.
Microsoft still needs to address a number of its own problems with Windows Phone. Notifications aren’t reliable and there’s a lack of video and TV show support directly from Microsoft. Xbox Video will debut soon to address the media capabilities of Windows Phone, but all these little things add up. "We see the feedback, there are a lot of things we feel we do well and there’s things we strive to do near term and long term," explains McGee. Joe Belfiore, Microsoft's manager of Windows Phone, "lives on those feature-request lists and knows exactly in priority order what people want and when, and I promise you that factors into the work that’s being done."
Windows Phone 8.1 is still a secret
The future of Windows Phone could be even brighter, but that feels like a common promise. "I think we’re on the right path," says Microsoft’s Todd Brix. "I think we’re making progress." Microsoft has reached the number-three slot, and it's a great step. But the company now has to make sure the apps it has attracted stay fresh, and that it continues to close the gap. Windows Phone needs to be more than a distant third spot, and much more than just a distant afterthought for top app-developers.