Wanted: More apps for Windows Phone
Because there are so few Windows Phone users, developers are reluctant to sink resources into creating a product that will reach a limited audience.
Seattle Times technology reporter
Top apps in Windows Phone MarketplaceTHE WINDOWS Phone Marketplace has more than 80,000 apps and games. These are the recent top five free and top five paid ones, according to Microsoft, which ranks them using a formula that combines number of downloads and user ratings.
Free: Skype, Facebook, YouTube, Adobe Reader, Wordament.
Paid: Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, PAC-MAN Kart Rally, iStunt 2, Civilization Revolution.
Source: Windows Phone Marketplace
Even as positive reaction rolled in for the Lumia 900, the flagship fruit of Microsoft and Nokia's smartphone partnership, reviewers repeatedly mentioned one point: the lack of apps for Windows Phone compared with its rivals.
The Windows Phone Marketplace has 80,000 apps — a big number but one that pales compared with the half million each Apple has for its iPhone and Google has for Android devices.
The problem is chicken-and-egg: Because there now are so few Windows Phone users, developers are reluctant to sink resources into creating a product that will reach such a limited audience.
Windows Phone holds less than 2 percent of the worldwide smartphone market and less than 4 percent of the U.S. market.
Microsoft recognizes the problem and is paying creators of popular apps to develop versions for Windows Phone, as well as offering incentives such as free phones.
The company is also hosting a two-day Windows Phone Developer Summit next month in San Francisco to help mobile app developers learn more about the platform.
If Windows Phone is to succeed as a platform, a lot depends on how those developers think about it. Here are some of their thoughts about Windows Phone:
The hobbyist developer
Hadi Partovi is a Bellevue-based angel investor and prominent tech figure in the Seattle area. He also happened to become a mobile app developer on the side.
When the iPhone came out, he decided to create an app called Toddler Flashcards for his 2-year-old son.
"We are king of the kids' flashcard-app business," he jokes. "It's not the world's largest business but we dominate it."
Partovi, who had worked at Microsoft as MSN.com general manager and has played major roles at several other tech companies, still has friends at Microsoft.
One asked to build a Windows Phone version of the app. Partovi agreed and said his friend could get 50 percent of any revenue generated.
"Sadly, the 50 percent cut he gets is effectively paying for him to get a latte a day," Partovi said.
That's because Toddler Flashcards on Windows Phone makes its developers about $2,000 a year. That's a far cry from the $100,000 a year the app generates from the iPhone.
"And this is for the exact same app," Partovi said. "In both cases, we did no marketing."
Partovi attributes the stark difference to, most obviously, the difference in the number of people using the platforms. But he also says Apple has done a better job of marketing apps as an important part of the smartphone experience.
"There are more Android phones out there than iPhones," he says. "But the smaller group of people with iPhones buy more apps than Android users."
Partovi credits Microsoft for making it easy to build a Windows Phone app.
The problem continues to be that even making it easy isn't enough to entice developers if potential buyers aren't there.
He cites Dropbox, which he invests in, as an example. Some 50 million people use the online storage service. But how many of them have Windows Phones? he asks.
"It's less about 'you don't know what kind of person uses a Windows Phone,' " he says. "It's more 'you don't know anybody.' "
Microsoft has enough apps now, he thinks, to get users. "Now, it's really a marketing challenge," Partovi said. "If they don't figure out the marketing problem, it's over."
The business app developer
For David D'Souza, co-founder and CEO of Seattle-based Moprise, the problem is not just the relative lack of users, but that he doesn't know who the users are.
D'Souza who worked at Microsoft from 1988 to 2009 on Windows and Silverlight, co-founded his app development company with another former Microsoft employee.
Moprise makes Coaxion, an app allowing people to share documents on their iPhone or iPad via the app's integration with services like Office 365, SharePoint, Dropbox and Box.net.
For now, at least, they make apps only for the iOS platform.
"We say we'll do Android if there's demand," D'Souza said. "And we're not finding that demand."
That's largely due to demographics, he believes.
Android seems to resonate the most with 15- to 35-year-olds who tend to be hip and irreverent, more interested in connecting with their social and peer group, he says.
Apple's iOS, on the other hand, he believes, seems to attract those from ages 25 to 55, higher income, trying to get ahead in their careers while keeping their families together and happy.
Windows Phone users? D'Souza has no clear picture.
"What do they stand for? What do they like? Why do they buy Windows Phone?" D'Souza asks. "Windows Phone lacks that identity."
That's partly because there aren't enough buyers to form a solid picture, he says. But equally important is that Windows Phone does not seem to target any specific demographic. It's "trying to be everything to everyone," D'Souza said.
"If we knew the demographics of Windows Phone users — what they like to do, what interests them — and we saw an alignment with our product, we would go there — very naturally," he said. "But we don't know."
A Microsoft spokeswoman said she did not have current demographics of Windows Phone users to share. Microsoft, she said, offers "the Windows Phone experience on a range of devices at multiple price points to ensure we appeal to different types of customers — whether they're buying their first smartphone or their fifth."
The app developer
Brian Greenstone, president and CEO of Austin, Texas-based Pangea Software, has several games running on Windows Phone, including "Enigmo" and "Cro-Mag Rally."
But Pangea doesn't actually produce the Windows Phone version. Subcontractors do.
Pangea, perhaps best known for developing games for the Mac, started focusing on iPhone games a few years ago.
Then, as Android began taking off, Pangea decided to subcontract with other companies to develop Pangea games for the platform.
"Frankly, Android is a pain in the ass to develop for," Greenstone said. "The tools are terrible, the whole programming environment is terrible."
More recently, Microsoft came calling, asking to put Pangea's games on its Windows Phone platform. Greenstone turned again to subcontractors. His math is this: "It costs me nothing to have someone else do it — the printer ink to print out the contract and that's it."
Pangea basically gets a percentage of what the subcontractors get. It doesn't amount to much, frankly. "We make so little money off of Android and Windows Phone stuff," he said.
Still, Greenstone sees more enthusiasm among developers for Windows Phone than Android — at least on the programming front.
"Android is truly just anarchy," he said. "My understanding is the Windows Phone programming environment, the software-development kit — everything is better. There's a more controlled environment."
When Sean Mortazavi and his colleagues at Bellevue-based Readabl launched their PaperKarma mobile app in January simultaneously on iPhone, Android and Windows Phone, they didn't know how unusual that was.
"Not having launched an app before, we thought it was the normal thing to do," said co-founder and CEO Mortazavi.
Their app helps people stop paper junk mail. When users get it, they use their mobile phone to take a photo of the unwanted catalog or offer and then click a button.
PaperKarma then matches the image to the tens of thousands of companies listed in its database, helping users get off the companies' mailing lists.
Mortazavi, a Microsoft employee working on open-source projects in the company's Server and Tools business, told some of his Microsoft colleagues about the app he was developing. They offered to create a Windows Phone version.
Since launch, thousands of users have downloaded the app, said Mortazavi, who declined to give more specific numbers but said it was "way, way more than we imagined would sign up."
At this point, about 80 percent of those registered are iPhone users, with the rest using mainly Android and some, Windows Phone.
Mortazavi said the heavy tilt toward iPhone users is likely because Apple featured PaperKarma twice recently on its app store's home page, including as an "App of the Week" and on its "Go Green" initiative.
The discrepancy among the three platforms wasn't quite as large before that, and Mortazavi predicts that gap will narrow in the future.
"The new guys on the block is obviously Windows Phone. We knew they didn't have a lot of users," Mortazavi said.
"But we love the platform. It has a wonderful UI. And better and better phones are coming into the channel. We think it's going to do well later on."
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @janettu.