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What will Windows Phone 7 mean for apps?


Microsoft has given its not-so-elusive Windows Phone 7 OS the wonderfully vague deadline of ‘before Christmas’. So with less than six months to go, our thoughts are turning to apps. You don’t need us to tell you that apps are a huge deal now – they can make or break an OS not only among the tech-savvy, but in the real world too.

Win Pho 7 is new new new!
If Windows Phone 7 can’t offer a competitive app marketplace, it may struggle to survive. Microsoft is pretty keen to point out that it has completely rethought its mobile phone software – clear your mind of all those Windows Mobile nightmares, Windows Phone 7 is a whole new ball game.

With Kin now out of the picture, Microsoft is leaving the hardware side of things to launch partners like LG. But it is keeping an eagle eye on things, insisting on a strict set of hardware minimum specs so developers know that the hardware will come with a capacitive touchscreen, a compass and at least 8GB of flash memory, among other things. So, theoretically, all apps should work on all Win Pho 7 devices.

Too many apps
With so many options and such a huge variety of apps, the crowded app market causes some platforms to suffer, Microsoft reckons. While this does sound suspiciously like something a platform with currently very few apps would say to justify their numbers, it is a point worth taking; app developers can’t get exposure because of the sheer volume of apps. If app developers don’t get exposure, they don’t make money. If there’s no money in it, many developers will eventually stop making apps altogether, leaving behind only the phenomenally successful and those in it for the love not the money.

It’s been said hundreds of times before, but what’s happening in apps at the moment is suspiciously reminiscent of the dot com boom of the late ’90s. We’ve talked about this ‘Mobubble’ in the past, with this guest post from Mills, co-owner of app development studio ustwo. Suffice to say, a cathartic cleansing of the market wouldn’t be the worst thing.

Survival of the fittest?
So what’s going to emerge from the rubble when the app model does collapse? Well, it’s hard to imagine anyone overtaking the iPhone in the app space, and Android has a very strong community behind it. Nokia’s Ovi Apps faces competition from BlackBerry’s App World, Samsung’s new bada platform and even its own MeeGo project – not to mention the ailing WebOS platform. I’m not convinced that more than three major platforms can operate at a sustainable equilibrium, unless each manufacturer takes its own platform’s app development in-house.

Microsoft has a plan though; it doesn’t want to just offer you the same app experience you get on a myriad of other handsets or a homescreen chockablock with app icons. It’s not too keen on you having to use apps one at a time either, manually clicking in and out of each app. The way Microsoft talks, you’d think it was a huge chore to open an app, not a quick press of the screen in the appropriate place. Still, we’re all for re-thinking the app, and Microsoft’s take has it integrated into your handset, running all the time on your homescreen. This goes beyond push notifications; it’s more like a series of interlocking widgets – a system Microsoft is calling ‘live tiles’.

“We want to move away from single-page apps,” Alex Reeve, Director or the Mobile Business Group at Microsoft told us. “For example, Facebook shouldn’t be an app; because of the quantity of Facebook users, it should be an integrated function of the phone.”

Quick, easy, beautiful
It seems that Apple-chasing has taught Microsoft the value of good design. Along with the premium placed on design in the new OS, with those lovely panoramic homescreens and interlocking widget-like menu options, all apps will have to be well designed in order to gain approval.

Microsoft says it wants to bring development and design together; they’re given equal importance. With so much of the application visible on the homescreen, it’s not surprising that it has to fit with the look and feel Microsoft has in mind; but will this stifle app designers? That’s a worry. If I were designing apps, I’d want much more concrete answers on how much Microsoft will be able to dictate design decisions and whether apps will be turned down based solely on design.

Xbox Live apps; mega cross-platform apps
What’s really exciting about the Microsoft app marketplace, is that it’ll be super easy for developers to convert their Xbox games to Win Pho 7. There are caveats – obviously, epic games like Halo aren’t going to do themselves justice on a handset. But arcade-style games are go, requiring just a few lines of code to port over to handset compatibility. This has the potential to open up a whole new arena of high quality mobile gaming.
There are 4m Xboxes in the UK market; way more than there are iPhones. Gives you an idea of the potential of Xbox Live, doesn’t it?

Big names = big bucks
Tom Hume, MD of Future Platforms, points out something worth noting; brands are already assigning budgets for 2011, and any app development is unlikely to include Windows Phone because it’s an unknown quantity. Budgets for 2012 will be a different matter; but that leaves Win Pho with one whole year as an outsider. Consumers may not want to part with their cash for a handset that has very limited app appeal.

Don’t forget who we’re talking about here though; this is Microsoft, a company with a little black book the size of the Yellow Pages. Brand partnerships shouldn’t be too difficult to come by and when asked how they are luring the big names, Microsoft representatives assured us that “we are working with them”. Who these ‘big names’ are and what will come out of these mysterious workings remains to be seen; we’re unlikely to hear much more on that until launch.

Try before you buy
When browsing for apps, I honestly can’t be bothered to read lengthy app descriptions; often the decision to download comes from the price and the attractiveness of the icon and screengrabs. This is rubbish for the developer, who isn’t a copy writer and doesn’t often get the opportunity to properly show-off the app’s capability, and rubbish for me because I’m probably missing out on some gems. Microsoft’s trial tool will be brilliant for this kind of situation; I can download an app and give it a go before committing any money to it.

The Marketplace, too, will showcase apps; it sounds as though Microsoft will be offering app developers advertising space within the app store. In addition, there’ll be an iTunes-like PC tool for app discovery. While these are great ideas, there’s a chance that we’ll see a similar situation to that of Apple and Android occurring; a top list which barely ever changes. It’s the age-old app catch 22; you can’t have a successful app without exposure and you can’t get exposure without a successful app.

What does it all mean?
It’s a sad fact, but a universal app platform is a naive utopian dream. Will Windows Phone take the third place in the app race? We wouldn’t be surprised; even in the short term, Microsoft’s heavy marketing push around the OS will inspire upswing and general interest, creating the illusion to developers that it’s a platform worth investing in.

With a seven-day approval guarantee, plans for transparent processes, guidance on app creation and help with app marketing, the company certainly seems geared towards helping app developers make money from their work. With many of the tools required for Win Pho 7 apps already in developers hands (thanks to Xbox and PC development), it could be a winning formula.

It’s all going to come down to the apps themselves though. If all we’re left with are a handful of big-name single-feature apps, consumers will stick to proven app stores and their associated handsets. If nothing else, it’s nice to see a new perspective on apps and widgets; whether or not the Win Pho ‘live tiles’ approach proves a worth alternative remains to be seen.

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