Windows Phone apps: does quantity equal success?

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There's been a lot of talk about Windows Phone lately, especially around the latest handsets and user interface. The New York Times highlighted the positive press that Windows Phone has received, stating that the OS is bold. That's certainly true, Windows Phone is bold visually and under the covers — marking a reset for the company from its Windows Mobile days. While the core operating system is winning praise, Microsoft has to stoke developer support and increase the number of quality apps on the platform for Windows Phone to succeed. 50,000 apps is a good milestone, but 1,000 quality apps can also be seen as a better measure of success.

Microsoft's core Windows Phone operating system is extremely powerful without any applications, something that the software giant clearly intended to show when it introduced the platform at Mobile World Congress 2010. Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 announcement video mocked other smartphones that made users jump in and out of apps, and the firm has been gradually adding in features typically found in separate apps ever since. However, the current state of the Marketplace is a mixed bag. Microsoft is trying hard to attract quality app developers, winning in some areas, but overall the Marketplace lacks control and standards.

A number of critics have highlighted flaws in Microsoft's mobile strategy, some pointing to the number of apps available. Robert Scoble has been the most vocal recently, arguing that Windows Phone is missing 450,000 apps, and developers aren't interested in focusing their resources on building apps for the platform. Business Insider responded and pointed to Windows Phone's 50,000 apps, compared to iOS' 500,000 and Android's 400,000, noting that Windows Phone reached the 50K milestone faster than iOS and Android. The numbers game is irrelevant for the majority of smartphone users, they simply want "cool" apps, and ones that their friends have — something that Windows Phone lacks right now.

The Marketplace offers 50,000 apps, but the number doesn't tell the full story

Microsoft's Windows Phone OS reminds me of the original iPhone, a break from tradition but one that requires developers and an ecosystem to really flourish. Apple launched its own App Store with less than 1,000 apps, alongside the iPhone 3G, a year after the initial introduction of the iPhone. Windows Phone launched with around 1,000 apps by comparison, and entered a market crowded by the success of iPhone and Android devices, making it difficult to succeed. The Windows Phone Marketplace currently offers 50,000 applications, but the number alone doesn't tell the full story. Justin Angel, a former Microsoft Silverlight Program Manager, took an in-depth look at the Windows Phone Marketplace in September and found that over 20 percent of all apps are cloned from other published ones. At the time, only 18,549 apps were genuine out of a total of 24,505 apps.

Microsoft has attempted to control "bulk app publishing," a process developers use to release cloned apps, but it doesn't appear to have helped. Looking at the Marketplace today you'll see hundreds of apps that infringe copyrights or simply use cloned RSS apps. Search for "CNN" and there's over 70 apps that use the CNN logo, none of them are official apps. It's the same for BBC and a large number of other well known brands. A fake Spotify app made it into the Marketplace recently, priced at $0.99, which tricked users into paying for a collection of music-related news feeds instead of the music streaming service app. Nintendo-owned games are also being illegally sold in the Marketplace, despite passing Microsoft's own Marketplace certification tests.

The top apps, at the time of writing, are all dominated by games — mostly published by Microsoft Studios or Electronic Arts. Some believe that Microsoft intends to bridge the gap of apps between Windows Phone and its competitors, something the company has promised several times before. Microsoft is reportedly working to ensure that all top 25 apps (from Android and iOS) will be made available before the end of the first half of 2012. If this happens, and on time, then it's a big step in the right direction.

Is Microsoft missing 450,000 apps? Not really

Scoble's argument centers around apps, and whether Microsoft can survive without them. It's clear that an app strategy is paramount, but Microsoft's work to simplify the mobile experience is equally important. Mango, which introduced a number of developer improvements, has shown there's an interest from devs — the large spike in apps through November and December demonstrates that. Is Microsoft missing 450,000 apps? Not really. It's missing the high quality apps that iOS and Android owners take for granted.

Microsoft knows Marketplace numbers aren't important, that's why you never see them push those types of stats to a broad audience. If Windows Phone is going to succeed then it needs top apps. Once Windows Phone users can sit down and watch a commercial that says "on iOS, Android and Windows Phone," then you'll know people are taking interest. Until then, Microsoft needs to clear up its existing Marketplace and focus on attracting quality applications, because no one wants to be left without their favorite app — especially if there are 450,000 they don't care about.

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