A well-publicized lack of apps has long been a problem for Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform. Along with the traditional but problematic carrier exclusivity of Microsoft’s flagship Lumia phones, the so-called “app gap” has caused even avid Microsoft users to think twice about buying a Windows phone, or about sticking with the platform when they upgrade to a new smartphone. And Tom Warren reports for The Verge that “even though Windows Phone is five years old, it’s still facing new challenges.”
Over the past year, Microsoft’s new platform hasn’t attracted the app developers who could improve the operating system’s app situation. In fact, an increasing number of high-profile apps have gradually disappeared from the platform. Warren notes that the recent removal of Mint is just the latest to anger users, and is unlikely to be the last.
Warren explains, “American Airlines, Chase Bank, Bank of America, NBC, Pinterest, and Kabam have all discontinued their Windows Phone apps in the past year. These huge apps have simply disappeared or will no longer be updated. Some companies have cited a lack of Windows Phone users, and others have remained silent, but each removal has put Microsoft another step behind in the mobile race.”
Unfortunately, it isn’t just apps created by third-party developers that are disappearing from Microsoft’s platform. Microsoft has removed several MSN apps, the popular Photosynth app, and a range of specialized Lumia camera apps. Even worse, users of the company’s smartphones still don’t have Skype or Office apps of the caliber that Microsoft has developed for the iPhone.
In Warren’s estimation, it’s “stunning” that after five years, the best user experience for the mobile versions of those apps isn’t on a smartphone that’s powered by Windows. It’s a situation that’s expected to change with Windows 10 Mobile, but a fix isn’t available yet.
Microsoft’s sales of its Lumia phones are taking a hit thanks to the platform’s app problem. Microsoft sold just 5.8 million Lumia Windows Phones in its most recent quarter, down significantly from the 9.3 million it sold in the same period last year. Warren notes that it’s “a nearly 40% decrease, and it’s not the way Lumia sales should be heading. HTC, Samsung, and Sony don’t care about Windows Phone, and Microsoft still ships more than 90% of all phones running the OS.”
Microsoft says that it’s focusing on a “more effective phone portfolio” of “better products,” which is likely to result in a Surface-inspired smartphone. But that won’t solve the platform’s app problem, which is evident not just in the apps that aren’t available to Windows phone users, but increasingly in the ones that are. Instagram, which was released two years ago, still doesn’t have video support. And Twitter rarely gets updated with the latest features. There are third-party alternatives for most major apps, but as Warren points out, it shouldn’t take Facebook two years to add video support to Instagram’s app on Windows Phone.
But Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has said that the social network “is all in on Windows 10,” according to an earlier report by The Verge, which revealed that the social networking giant is developing Windows 10 apps for Messenger, Instagram, and Facebook. Facebook’s commitment to Windows 10 could prove a powerful force for the operating system as Microsoft tries to turn it around.
With the advent of Windows 10, Microsoft promised to create an operating system that would encourage developers to create universal apps that run across PCs, phones, tablets, and the Xbox One — something users have yet to see in action. Microsoft is also enabling iOS and Android developers to port their code into universal apps, which could help to narrow the app gap, but there haven’t been any big announcements yet.
Warren points out that while it might seem easy to blame developers for the lack of apps available for Windows smartphones, developers are also dealing with an operating system that Microsoft has continually rebooted.
Windows Phone 7 was launched as a Windows Mobile reboot in 2010, and when Windows Phone 8 was launched two years later in 2012, existing handsets couldn’t be upgraded. Apps also needed to be heavily updated, which is a time-intensive process for most developers. Then Windows Phone 8.1 arrived last year, bringing features that were long missing from the platform, and Microsoft is rebooting the platform again with the release of Windows 10 Mobile.
But as Warren notes, Windows 10 brings “another reset, and Microsoft can’t keep hitting the reboot button forever.” Many think that Windows 10 Mobile is unlikely to make a difference to the fate of Windows Phone as a whole, as developers tire of frequently changing requirements and expectations, and users decide to give up on waiting for their favorite apps to be introduced or improved for Microsoft’s platform.