LIVE FROM MOBILE APP WORLD 2010: Brandon Watson, Director for Windows Phone 7 at Microsoft, used his keynote speech at this morning’s Mobile App World 2010 event to highlight the challenges of choice for mobile developers, arguing that “there are so many choices, it’s almost overwhelming. It’s the paradox of choice.” Watson also used the event to criticise the focus on the widespread coverage of the number of apps in a store, on the day that Apple confirmed its App Store has topped the 300,000 mark – although with some earlier reports suggesting that the Windows Phone 7 store will have just 2,000 titles available at launch, customers will not be faced with the same paradox of choice.
Watson notes that the nature of the fragmentation is different in the mobile world from the traditional internet, with in some ways mobile presenting a more unified picture for developers. In the internet world, “along came the web and everything became abstracted,” he argues, with developers confronted by a mix of web tools, scripting frameworks, middleware, database platforms and operating systems, before reaching the hardware layer. The fact that this environment has led to the emergence of front-end and back-end developers was deemed “a bit weird – it’s just building an application.”
In contrast, in the mobile space this has been simplified, with developers writing for the device OS, which runs directly on top of the hardware. However, in this instance the fragmentation comes from the multitude of platforms available – with choices including Windows Phone 7, iOS and multiple Android variants. “Instead of programming for the lowest common denominator for the web, you are now targeting iPhone, or Windows Phone 7, or the flavour of the week depending on which carrier or which Android phone. It’s not a simple matter of iPhone has more customers: the question is, does it have your customers? That is what is going to be challenging for developers.”
Moving on to the app store ecosystem, Watson takes a similar line to Nokia with regard to total available product numbers: “Whenever I’m asked, ‘how may apps do you have?,’ I ask ‘how many apps do you have on your phone?’ As long as we have those, that’s all that matters, right?” But this could easily be a reflection of the less than startling number of apps currently available for Windows Phone 7 when compared to iOS, Android and even RIM’s BlackBerry, although in Microsoft’s defence this is largely the result of it building up a new catalogue following the decision to break compatibility with its earlier Windows Mobile platforms.
The economics of Apple’s App Store was also criticised, as being a platform which recognises volume, rather than revenue generated by developers. This has led to the prevalence of two pricing options, free and US$0.99, in order to drive the largest volume of downloads, making the economics significantly more challenging for developers.“Selling a million units at US$0.99 is a great plan, but it’s still a million units. It’s a lot. To be able to sell a million of anything is a huge deal.” Windows Phone does not have the legacy of this pricing model, Watson argues, enabling developers to price products more realistically – although with the availability of low costs generally seen as the reason why mobile apps are so popular, it will be interesting to see if consumers are now prepared to pay more for software.
Google’s Android Market also came in for a swift jibe, with Watson noting the lack of a search option when accessed from a browser – deemed ironic, considering Google’s core activity in the search market.
With an increasing amount of focus being placed on the potential of cloud-based services to shift intelligence away from handset apps to a server, Watson iterated the strengths and power of the handset and suggested the adoption of a hybrid model. “You have more processing power in a phone than was used in all of the programmes that put people into space. That is terrifying and yet amazing all at the same time. So it is silly to think that you would throw away all of this processing power, and not take advantage of the processor, not take advantage of the graphics – it just seems a bit strange. So why not focus the data in the cloud, and then let the UI and the presentation of that data happen on the phone?”
Moving on to Windows Phone 7, Watson says that the company’s decision to “restart” its mobile activities, rather than continuing to evolve the existing Windows Mobile operating system, “gave ourselves a little flexibility.” The company focused on three goals to this end: to help customers personalise handsets with apps and games, to help developers be profitable, and help developers deliver cloud experiences.