In order to address a shortage of native Windows apps for mobile devices, Microsoft is providing the tools to help developers bring apps from the two leading mobile platforms to Windows 10.
On the surface, the strategy should make Microsoft phone owners happy. However, Microsoft is taking a risk that could end up biting its mobile users and hurting its smartphone ambitions.
Microsoft’s App Store Pains
Conventional wisdom says that the number of apps available have a lot to do with the success of a mobile platform. Potential buyers of smartphones and tablets running Microsoft software know that Windows apps are sparse compared to the millions of titles available on the Apple Inc (NASDAQ:AAPL) App Store or Google Inc’s (NASDAQ:GOOG, NASDAQ:GOOGL) Google Play.
Many of those apps are duplicates or variations on a theme, but for consumers, overall numbers matter. And when it comes to Windows apps, it’s not just the overall numbers that are cause for concern. Some key apps — like Google’s YouTube — are still missing, Microsoft gets little in the way of exclusives, and developers of popular titles for iOS and Android usually take 200 days or more before getting them up on Windows’ app store.
Microsoft was concerned enough about the situation a few years ago to pay a bounty to developers. Releasing a Windows app paid a $100 bonus and Business Insider says some developers were getting as much as $100,000 from Microsoft to port their apps to the platform.
Now the company has shifted tactics by trying to make it as effortless as possible to simply push competing apps into the Windows Store instead of building them from scratch.
The new strategy is slightly different for iOS and Android, but with the same end result: Being able to quickly release apps developed for those platforms as Windows phone apps. Mobile devices running Windows 10 will be able to run unmodified Android apps — developers can simply publish the app in the Windows Store.
Microsoft is hoping developers will put in the effort to tweak them for Windows, but it’s not technically necessary. Microsoft phone owners will also be able to run iOS apps that have been recompiled for the Windows platform using new Visual Studio tools that minimize development effort.
Sure, it all sounds good, but there are risks.
Windows App Store Risks
Releasing apps that were designed for one platform without taking the time to optimize them for another can result in a poor user experience. BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY) has used a similar tactic by offering Android support and integrating the Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) Appstore in BB10.
On the surface, the move offers a massive boost to the number of apps available to BlackBerry owners, but there are downsides. As Mashable’s Raymond Wong points out, those Android apps often run slower, don’t recognize a Blackberry’s physical buttons and are designed for a long rectangular screen — which doesn’t look great on a square-screened BlackBerry.
In other words, make it too easy for developers to simply port an app to another platform instead of building it specifically to take advantage of the operating system and hardware and they’ll take that route. But users often get a second-rate experience.
There’s also the risk of having the original operating system change faster than development tools can keep up. For example, Apple is known for its rapid iOS release schedule. There is a major upgrade every year, multiple revisions throughout the year and a large majority of iPhone users upgrade regularly, so app developers count on devices having the new iOS capabilities.
Microsoft is proving a middleware layer in its development tools that includes any system-level APIs that iOS apps expect. If Apple makes a change in iOS before Microsoft can update its tools, developers who expect to recompile their iOS software as Windows apps could find themselves out of luck.
With Windows’ share of the smartphone market actually shrinking in 2014 (IDC says it dropped from 3.3% to just 2.7%), Microsoft has to do something to prevent Windows 10 mobile from reaching BlackBerry levels of irrelevancy. Making it as easy as possible for iOS and Android apps to become Windows apps could help to reverse the slide.
On the other hand, the strategy could result in fewer apps that are designed specifically for (or at least optimized for) Windows 10 and end up having the reverse effect.
Many Windows proponents are worried about Microsoft’s plans. However, at this point — with the stakes so high and nothing else having worked — Microsoft is clearly prepared to gamble on its mobile future.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.
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