To Build Or Not To Build, That Is The Windows Phone App Dev Question

A while back, I used one of my phone reviews as a platform to make a desperate, but necessary, plea to developers: Please build cool apps for Windows Phone 7.5. Come to find Microsoft had been making the same plea for a while as part of a broader support program called BizSpark, which gives tech startups from all walks of life ranging from desktop to the cloud to mobile the support they need to get their companies off the ground. To that end, the company recently held an event in New York called Mobile Acceleration Week (just one in a series of Mobile Acceleration Weeks that take place worldwide), in which 12 startups were offered hands-on training and support to build mobile apps for the platform.

Obviously these developers had above-and-beyond support from Microsoft, but I was somewhat surprised to find that many of them are pretty infatuated with the platform. Some talked up the OS’s enterprise-friendliness, while others bragged about how quickly they can build for WP7 compared to iOS and Android, while others simply prefer their app on a Metro UI. From the way that developers in general have been so hesitant to make the shift, I simply had to ask, “Why are developers — at least the ones who’ve moved over to WP7 — so gung-ho about Mango?”

Microsoft’s senior director of Windows Phone apps seemed to have the answer: “we give a fuck.”

The developers involved in the program seemed to heartily agree with him, so the question now becomes: if Windows Phone is such a great place to build and market apps, then where are all the Windows Phone apps? Apple boasts around 500,000 apps on its App Store, while Android has around 350,000, reports Flurry. Meanwhile, Windows Phone 7 has just hit the 40,000 app mark.

Microsoft has always maintained that its Marketplace is more about quality then quantity — a standard that has been questioned recently due to an influx of spammy apps hitting the Marketplace — but when do the numbers themselves become more compelling than the content?

In other words, when you walk into a phone store and the salesperson tells you that with the iPhone you’ll be able to choose from over 500,000 apps, it’s hard to justify buying a phone with access to just 40,000. It’s simple and quite obvious math — the chances of you finding the app you want goes up more than ten-fold on iOS, not to mention iOS devices outsell Windows Phone handsets in general. But senior director of Windows Phone apps at Microsoft Brandon Watson didn’t argue with me there, saying “developers are pragmatic people, and iPhones to date have outsold us.”

But Watson believes Microsoft support is compelling enough to grab developers. Watson said that he hears from developers that “Apple is a black box, and Google isn’t there,” adding that “they won’t support you the way we do; they won’t be as open about merchandizing policies or approach you in an open and respectful way.” Those are some fightin’ words, no doubt, but Watson said he thinks he knows why his platform gives more f*%#s than the others.

“They probably thought of [app developer support] as an ROI calculation. That’s the wrong way to think about developing a platform and the future of your developers,” said Watson. “Instead, you should use them to push and sell the platform.” That starts with understanding the wants and needs of developers, said Watson. “Developers care about two things: making money and getting noticed for their work.” By putting a little extra effort into the developers program, or “giving a fuck” as Watson would put it, Microsoft has the ability to help developers do both.

All that’s well and good, but now speed is the name of the game. Microsoft doesn’t necessarily need 500,000 apps to compete with iOS in the app space, but right now the difference in numbers is simply too great to be ignored. In all honestly, most of those 40,000 apps are the same major apps we use on iOS and Android regularly, and Watson maintains that the rest of the “big-time apps” are in the works to hit Windows soon. But in-store, all it takes is the user unsuccessfully looking for one app they use regularly on their current phone to say, “Nah, I’ll stick with Android.”

With that obstacle in mind, Redmond’s strategy loops back to Mobile Acceleration Week. The company holds a number of MAWs a year, each intent on finding the most promising apps that haven’t necessarily “blown up” on the other platforms. The idea is that these apps will get a chance to start fresh on Windows, and perhaps make a splash courtesy of a new UI and new developer tools. If Microsoft can snag a couple “have-to-have” apps, users will inevitably migrate. The platform is certainly strong enough to get in the ring with iOS and Android (even if it can’t land a solid KO just yet). Users just have to discover that fact, with the comfort of always knowing “there’s an app for that.”

“If you build it, they will come.”