Microsoft has a prime opportunity to create a successful Windows Phone 7 smartphone app market
Breaking news! Apple's App Store is the biggest mobile application marketplace in the land. OK, all sarcasm aside, the situation before us as Microsoft developers is well documented. Currently, if you want to reach the most users for your new whiz-bang mobile application, you've got to write for the iOS platform. Many of you have probably already done this, perhaps using MonoTouch to leverage your C# skills. Or, maybe you went the "tag-style" approach with PhoneGap.
Regardless, I'm sure that you would rather build apps for the Windows Phone Marketplace, so that you can use Silverlight and/or XNA directly in Visual Studio 2010. You may think that the battle is lost because Apple, Android, and Blackberry have such a big head start, but you can't judge the size of the app market for a particular platform strictly based on how many users have phones with that platform. As an example, Android is quickly gaining ground on iOS in total users, but the Android Marketplace is currently in disarray with poor search results and terrible oversight in regard to app submissions. Therefore, Apple's App Store downloads dwarf Android downloads. Most BlackBerry users aren't very accustomed to downloading third-party apps, so BlackBerry's App World has struggled to gain momentum among its many users.
This leaves an opportunity for Windows Marketplace to jump fairly quickly to number two on the list, even though it will take some time for total Windows Phone 7 users to catch up with the other big players in the smartphone market. Aside from the huge marketing efforts that Microsoft is putting forth to bring in more total users, they can also do some critical things to grease the wheels of progress in the Windows Phone Marketplace to make it the perfect breeding ground for mobile application innovation.
My first suggestion would be for Microsoft to create a conversion utility to port iOS applications written with Objective C to C#/Silverlight. Some of you might think that this sounds like a disaster, but I see it otherwise. Remember back when .NET first came out and Microsoft released a tool to convert Visual Basic 6 to Visual Basic .NET? Despite their similar names, both the syntax and implementation were radically different. And yet, the biggest hurdle wasn't mapping the syntax or framework objects. Rather, it was the rampant usage of third-party components whose functionality couldn't directly be mapped to .NET out of the box. With Objective C on iOS, the third-party component problem is all but wiped out. Plus, there are very few things that can be done on iOS-based devices (e.g., iPhone, iPod Touch) that cannot also be done on Windows Phone 7. By creating an environment where applications can be ported easily to Windows Marketplace, users will feel that they aren't losing all the great apps they've grown to love by switching to Windows Phone 7. Instead of relying on knock-off apps, they can have the real thing.
My second suggestion would be for Microsoft to alleviate one of the big concerns that developers have with any managed app store: Allow quick updates for bug fixes. I think we can all agree that when you don't supervise submissions to an app store, you end up with the mess that is the Android Market. However, if you clamp down too tight, then it can be too time consuming to deploy fixes when you discover bugs in your app. My idea is to have the standard certification process for first-time submissions of applications. Then, subsequent updates should be run through a file comparison, and if the byte-code is at least 90 percent similar, then the updated app should be immediately available on the Windows Marketplace. Of course, the application should still have to go through the normal approval process "post availability," and if any problems are found (e.g., content that violates Microsoft policy), then the application can be pulled. In this manner, though, developers can have confidence that they won't be trapped into long bug-fix cycles. There will be people that try to abuse this system, but there is definitely a balance that can be struck.
We've all beaten up Microsoft sufficiently about their late entry into to the new generation of smartphones, but I think most of us are still rooting for them to pull off an amazing comeback with Windows Phone 7. I think that Microsoft should leverage one of the biggest advantages of late entry into a space: the benefit of seeing what other companies did wrong. We shouldn't forget that Apple was one of the last entries into the MP3 player market and totally dominated it. Microsoft can pull the same stunt, but they need to execute perfectly on multiple fronts. One of those biggest fronts is the Windows Marketplace. The experience has to be perfect both for users as well as for developers. If any company can do it, Microsoft can.
Jonathan Goodyear (email@example.com) is president of ASPSOFT, an Internet consulting firm in Orlando. He is Microsoft regional director for Florida, an ASP.NET MVP, a Microsoft Certified Solution Developer, and a contributing editor for DevProConnections.