It may have some way to go, but Windows Phone is making small strides in some key markets as it looks to chip away at the dominance of iOS and Android.
Recent figures suggest Windows Phone 7 and 8 constitute more than 10% of UK smartphone sales, while across other major European markets Windows Phone 8 represents around 1 in 10 of all smartphone sales. Some data even suggests it overtook iOS in Italy between July and September.
A new era of tech events has begun
We’re back in New York this November for the 4th edition of our growth-focused technology event.
However significant this data prove in the long term remains to be seen, but a lot of change is afoot at Microsoft: Ballmer is making way for a new CEO, while it also snapped up Nokia’s Devices and Services division. Possibly one large throw of the dice for Windows Phone, guided by a new visionary.
It’s worth stopping and taking a look at the health of the Windows Phone platform as thing stand, given there has been a lot of activity over the past month in terms of apps.
We’ve previously argued that Windows Phone’s big problem isn’t a lack of apps – it’s merely opinion-formers perpetuating a myth that native apps are pivotal to a mobile platform, and this filters down through to those looking to buy a shiny new phone. Except many, if not most, of the consumer market would get by absolutely fine with a good browser, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Instagram, Angry Birds and maybe one or two others.
However, a lack of native apps is a problem for some, and Microsoft has been working its butt off to lure the big-name brands on board. In the last month alone we’ve seen a slew of hit apps finally arrive on Windows Phone 8 – Instagram, Vine, Waze and Mint.com, to name just a few.
But launching an app is one thing – you can simply pay someone to replicate the app for Windows Phone, stick it online for anyone to download and, well, voila. But maintaining the app and ensuring it’s up to scratch with its counterparts on iOS and Android is another thing altogether. It’s just as important.
So we thought we’d give you a quick snapshot of the current state of play, looking at whether ‘having an app’ in the Windows Phone Store aligns with ‘having a great, fully-featured up-to-date app’ in the Windows Phone Store. You may actually be surprised as to how many of the biggies are already on Windows Phone.
What better place to start than with the recently launched ones?
Instagram for Windows Phone remains a beta product for now, and only caters for photos – so you can’t do fancy things with video for the time-being. Plus, it doesn’t let you take a photo in-app, it guides you temporarily out of the app and into the main camera application to take your photo, then takes you back to Instagram. Not a big deal really, but a quirky deviation from what we’ve come to expect from the other Instagram apps.
Just this week, the Facebook-owned service got a big new update for iOS and Android called Instagram Direct, which lets you share photos and videos privately with set individuals and groups. But there’s no word yet on this feature hitting Windows Phone.
So less than a month after launch, Instagram for Windows Phone is already playing catch-up to a degree, but it is just a Beta product for now, and an official Instagram app is better than no official Instagram app, right? If you’re still not entirely happy, you can also check out 6tag.
It’s too early to know for sure how swiftly Instagram for Windows Phone will receive bug-fixes and platform updates, so the jury’s still out on this one.
Yes. Vine for Windows Phone. Happy days, right?
Twitter’s GIF-like looping video app has proven to be a major hit since it launched first on iOS back in January, so there’s no reason why it wouldn’t on Windows Phone too. Indeed, the app is pretty much fully-featured and based on our tests, it works absolutely great.
There haven’t been any major tweaks or updates since launch, but that was only a month ago. So far so good, and definitely better late than never.
So far so good though, the Waze Windows Phone app is pretty much fully-featured and, as with Vine and Instagram, it’s perhaps too early to judge whether or not this app will suffer at the hands of delayed updates and omitted features.
Though it is a US-only service, Mint.com has long-proven its worth as a personal finance service on other platforms. So its recent arrival for Windows Phone was certainly welcome.
At launch, which also saw the service arrive as a native Windows 8 app, Vince Maniago, Group Product Manager for Mint, said that their goal was to be at “feature-parity” from the start, with thousands of beta testers giving the app a thorough road test en-route to launch.
Good work. So far.
Angry Birds Go
While we knew it was coming, Rovio finally launched its Mario Kart-style Angry Birds racing game a few days back, hitting Windows Phone, Android, iOS, AND BlackBerry in one fell swoop.
The Angry Birds franchise is really growing arms and legs now, and based on our initial tinkerings with this game on Microsoft’s mobile platform, it should have another hit on its hands. Here’s hoping it maintains parity with other operating systems.
As with this free-to-play game on the other systems, you’re best password-protecting this baby, as your kid could run up a fairly hefty bill through in-app purchases.
Blippar may not be as instantly recognizable as the Instagrams and Vines of the world, but the UK-headquartered company has been filling a sizable niche over the past few years, as an augmented reality app for brands to engage with consumers. Point your phone at a product to unlock new content – boom.
We were there right at the very beginning, so it’s good seeing it finally arrive on Windows Phone.
There are a few features missing from the Windows Phone app, for example social sharing and the catalog UI which lets you discover more live ‘blipps’. But we’re told they’ll be added shortly.
So that’s some of the recently launched apps, now let’s take a look at some of the other big-name applications that have been on Windows Phone for a while already. This should give us a better idea as to how reliable the app ecosystem really is beyond the initial launch.
Microsoft owns Skype, so Skype must be absolutely top-notch on Windows Phone, right? You would think so. But alas, the computing giant has sometimes been slow to roll out new features to its own platforms.
Remember when Skype received a neat new video-messaging feature on Mac, iPhone and Android earlier this year? Yup, no Windows or Windows Phone love at first – it took until September for this feature to arrive on Windows Phone.
Both the iOS and Android incarnations have received updates in the last couple of weeks, with ‘general fixes and improvements’ in there. Skype for Windows Phone was last updated in early October.
However, Skype for Windows Phone works perfectly well, and the feature-set is largely identical across the various platforms, though there are navigational nuances that vary by OS. Plus, you do encounter little annoyances from time to time – for example, you can’t remove contacts from within the Windows Phone app as you can on Android or iOS.
Twitter for Windows Phone is typically behind on getting the updates that are rolled out to its mobile brethren, but that’s not always a bad thing.
While the iOS and Android apps are gaining more tabs and features, shifting (unwanted?) sections front-and-center (yes, we’re talking to you ‘Discover’ and ‘Activity’), the Windows Phone version remains a simple and beautiful thing. No clutter.
But given we’re talking here about speed of updates rather than interface preferences which are entirely subjective, Twitter could be better. For example, while iOS and Android was enabled with photos in direct messages this week, Windows Phone is still waiting.
However, the key point here is that Twitter for Windows Phone is great, it’s perfectly usable for the average social media nut and it’s certainly enough to tempt any would-be Android/iOS defector on board.
Broadly speaking, WhatsApp’s perennially popular group messenger app is up to scratch with its mobile counterparts, and it’s certainly good enough to not deter fans of the service from signing up to Windows Phone. However, it can be a little buggy from time-to-time, closing unexpectedly and so on.
But WhatsApp released its last update just a few weeks back, and there has been reasonably regular roll outs for bug fixes. Plus the company often launches new features on all platforms simultaneously – as we saw with the push-to-talk voice messaging update back in August.
With its sticky fingers in just about every retail orifice, Amazon is a lynchpin of e-commerce. So you’ll be pleased to know that the Amazon app is good, receives fairly regular updates and is generally on a par with its counterparts in terms of features.
Not a lot more to say really, it works as described.
While a dedicated e-reader is certainly more enjoyable than an app, being able to access all your synced, cloud-stored books from your mobile phone can come in handy. And Amazon Kindle for Windows Phone works pretty much flawlessly.
The app received its last update just a couple of weeks back, reeling in a new book-progress feature for Live Tiles and a number of other fixes and features. It’s a shame there isn’t a Kobo app for Windows Phone too.
TuneIn has emerged as one of the top radio-based apps for mobile and the Web, and thankfully it’s available on Windows Phone too.
The TuneIn app for Windows Phone works flawlessly, lets you sign-in to access all your saved stations and generally performs as you expect.
Moreover, it received a reasonably big update just a couple of months back, featuring a nice new UI and support for 512MB devices – so lower-end Lumia devices can once again access the service.
A really great app.
Shazam officially unveiled its music tagging app for Windows Phone 8 earlier this year and it’s a goodie – but is slightly different to the other mobile versions.
While the iOS and Android incarnations link through to the likes of Spotify, Rdio, and iTunes, the Windows Phone version guides users towards Xbox Music or, if you’re using a Nokia handset, Nokia Music. YouTube integration is also included.
Another nice touch that sets this apart from other platforms, is the ability to add a Shazam button to the Live Tiles – so basically you can tag tracks directly from your home-screen without having to pre-load the app.
It has also received fairly regular updates since launch back in April.
This perhaps could be a deal-breaker for some. Generally speaking, Spotify for Windows Phone works, and it works well…if you have a Premium account.
Earlier this week, Android and iOS users welcomed the news that free, ad-supported streaming was arriving on the scene. Windows Phone users received no such news, meaning that to use this app you must be on a ten-bucks-a-month subscription.
Moreover, the Spotify app hasn’t had much in the way of updates of late, with the last refresh happening way back in July. There are some big features missing too – including Spotify Radio.
To summarize, Spotify for Windows Phone works fine, but it’ll need some serious updates soon and really needs free streaming to be brought into line with other platforms.
Netflix has done a good job of making itself cross-platform, and with Windows Phone we have another decent app from the video-streaming company.
Netflix optimized the app for Windows Phone earlier this year, and feature-wise it’s pretty much in line with iOS and Android, though a glaring omission is support for different user profiles. But it has had a handful of updates this year, including tweaks and bug fixes.
Evernote will rank as one of the more ‘essential’ apps for many mobile users, and the Windows Phone version doesn’t disappoint.
Back in August, Evernote finally optimized the app for Windows Phone 8, and received a new camera, speech-to-text, smart titles, among other updates. It’s also received a few fixes and minor updates since then.However, there’s still no Skitch for Windows Phone, which is a shame.
Yes, it’s functional and lets you bid, buy and sell items, but the interface is fairly awful. Why it’s gone for an all-black affair, when white is its norm, is a mystery. And red text against a black background for alerts is, well, difficult to decipher.
General usability isn’t good and it seems this has been cobbled together by an intern. Using this after having become accustomed to the Android and iOS incarnation feels like a massive step back. But it works, which is something.
PayPal is a different story to the eBay app – it looks like it has been professionally designed for starters. You can send and request money, view your transactions and more.
It has most of the functionality you’d hope for, but you can’t withdraw funds through the app which will be a deal-breaker for many. And it hasn’t received any updates for nine months – its iOS and Android brethren are regularly given tweaks, bug-fixes and updates.
Generally speaking, LinkedIn’s Windows Phone app offers a solid interpretation of its social network, and it looks and feels decidedly different to the iOS and Android version.
The app adopts a familiar Windows Phone-centric tile-based interface, with ‘LinkedIn Today’, ‘Groups’, ‘Inbox’ and more having their own dedicated space.
LinkedIn for Windows Phone received its first update in a while just a couple of days ago, and now lets you add and edit your profile picture, link up with potential contacts based on those in your address book, and see who’s viewed your profile more easily. However, you still can’t edit your main profile, which is a bummer.
Still, it’s a decent effort, even if it does lack the depth of features available on other platforms.
Tumblr finally arrived for Windows Phone back in April, which was a relief – we were starting to think it would never happen. And maybe that’s what made Yahoo finally consider it a serious acquisition candidate (joking).
The app is functional on a basic level, but it is missing some key features. For example, it only seems to let you upload a single photograph for a new blog post, and you can’t do much networking to speak of – there’s no way to view accounts you’re following, or see who’s following you. You can’t read messages either, or download images to your device.
If all you want to do is post a quick blog post, it’s fine. But the overall experience could be better.
If WordPress is your mobile CMS of choice, well, you’re reasonably well covered on Windows Phone. You can add new posts, view your stats, add a new page to your site, fiddle with your blog settings and manage comments.
Certainly, it’s been beautifully designed and it will suffice for most people. But it can be fiddly adding media files to a new post, and you can’t view your top post and pages, or view by country in the Stats.
Plus, Automattic seems to lean towards Android and iOS when considering rolling out updates and bug fixes. The Windows Phone version hasn’t been given any love now for the best part of six months.
The app itself lets you do many things, and it probably won’t disappoint the casual user. But for hardcore Foursquare aficionados, there are missing features – for example you’re not able to tag friends from Foursquare or Facebook when you check-in somewhere.
However, the app is completely usable and shouldn’t irk too many people.
There’s no shortage of GPS fitness-tracking apps for iOS and Android, but there’s not quite so many available for Windows Phone.
RunKeeper dropped support for the Windows mobile platform last year, though founder Jason Jacobs tells us he’s open to being on any platform with mass appeal and hasn’t ruled out establishing a presence there again in the future. For now, Endomondo and Runtastic definitely save the day with a couple of splendid Windows Phone apps.
I’m going to single out Runtastic here, simply because it’s what I use most often and, well, it is a very popular fitness-tracking app. The free version for Windows Phone is fantastic, but lacks music integration – so you can’t access your tunes directly from within the app. The $1.99 Pro version brings this though, as well as route-planning, voice feedback and live tracking.
One particularly annoying omission is that it doesn’t seem to be able to access your activity history if you’ve been using the app on another device. None of my runs and cycles for the past 2 or so years show up here. It’s basically a blank slate.
However, there are some Windows Phone-specific features such as Nokia Music integration, as well as a Live Tile that displays your monthly statistics.
All-in-all it’s a good app that’s regularly updated and quite well loved.
Many of Google’s flagship services are missing from Windows Phone, but you’ll be pleased to know that a fairly full-featured search app is available.
It has voice search, location-based search to automatically surface things near where you are, and auto-complete. And you can sign-in to your Google account through the app too, which basically gives you access to other Google services through the browser without needing to sign in again – including Gmail and YouTube.
For those reliant on Google’s services on their mobile, this app does a reasonable job of side-stepping the need for native apps. But it’s far from perfect, and you will miss a lot if you jump over from another platform – the Gmail experience here is pretty shoddy once you’re used to the Android or iOS app.
However, Google does give this app some attention, and it works well. It’s better than a kick in the teeth, right?
Amazon-owned IMDb is a pretty indispensable service for movie-lovers. The Android version is fantastic, the Windows Phone version is…good enough.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t been updated in 18 months, and it seems like it’s pretty much been forgotten about. However, it’s still plugged into the gargantuan movie database, and it will serve you reasonably well.
The colors seem just a little bit garish to me though – I’m not sure if it’s the shade or the brightness or what. But you can drill down on everyone involved in a movie, and go off on tangents the more you click.
The one major drawback for me, however, is the lack of accounts – you cannot sign in and access your history, watchlist, or reviews. As such, you can’t write reviews either.
So it’s not great, but it’s not awful either. I hope someone at Amazon and IMDb remembers this app exists and gives it a massive lick of paint and some fresh features soon.
If you were thinking we’d forgotten about Facebook, well, we haven’t. There is an app, it’s just that Microsoft has had to build the thing itself, given Zuck & Co. clearly don’t see too much value in it. So this isn’t an official app per se, but we’re including it anyway because it’s built by the folk behind the mobile platform it appears on. That’s close enough.
The general design and layout is faithful to the iOS and Android app, and you shouldn’t have too much difficulty getting to grips with it. You can upload photos, check-in, browse your feed, see what’s happening nearby, and view events.
As of a very recent update, you can also now unfriend folk and unlike things you’ve previously chosen to ‘like’.
Indeed, for most people, Microsoft’s effort will be more than enough. But for those who only ever access the Internet on their phone, there are some key omissions. For example, you can’t edit your profile, and you can’t tag people in photographs. Also, it can be a little slow at times.
Overall, it gets pass marks though and will be good enough for most people.
This is another annoying one. Given that Google’s attention lies elsewhere, YouTube arrived on the scene via Microsoft’s own developers…but due to a series of squabbles involving a violation of terms and conditions, Google blocked access to the app for a while.
As of October, Microsoft reverted the YouTube Windows Phone app to its former state – which is basically a shortcut to a mobile Web version of the service. While it did end Google’s eight-week block, the existing ‘app’ isn’t really any different to what you could already access via the Google search app or good ol’ Internet Explorer.
Videos do play, you can sign-in to your account, post comments and so on. But it lacks the finesse and full-functionality of the native apps available for iOS and Android. This isn’t even really an app.
Windows Phone does have a decent selection of the big apps available, and for the most part they’re all pretty good and receive regular updates, even if they lack some of the features of their iOS and Android counterparts.
There are also many, many more little ditties, from calculators to flight search engines, so there’s plenty to tempt would-be defectors onto the platform if native apps is what they want – but there are still some big ones missing.
Here’s a look at some of these.
Missing in action
For many, the lack of a fully-integrated Google experience, replete with native apps, is a deal-breaker in itself.
There’s no Google Maps, but there is the home-grown Maps and Here Maps; and while there’s no official Gmail app, there is a decent third-party effort. You used to be able to set up native Google Sync support with Windows Phone, but as of January this year it’s now restricted to Google Apps for Business, Education, and Government customers only. There’s also no Chrome or Firefox browsers available, but the baked-in Internet Explorer app is good.
They’ve been promised and should be arriving soon, but there’s still no sign of Path or Flipboard. Dropbox is missing too which will disappoint many, and there’s no SoundCloud, Yahoo Mail, Airbnb, Snapchat, Uber, Hailo, Wikipedia (there is a decent third-party one), Pinterest, Pocket or Any.do.
Some real biggies missing in there, so there’s still some work to be done.
The Windows Phone appeal
Some smaller companies see Windows Phone as a viable platform, while some with masses of cash don’t – just look at Google and Facebook. I thought I’d ask a couple of the startups that have native Windows Phone apps why they made the move, and what kind of treatment they’ll give it moving forward.
As we noted earlier, Blippar took its augmented reality app to Windows Phone last month, around two years after its product first launched. So what was the tipping point here – why now for Windows Phone?
“From the start our intention was to launch across all platforms, so we always had an eye on Windows Phone,” explains Rish Mitra, CEO and co-founder of Blippar. “Having received a few requests from clients to have the app available on that platform, we decided to give it the final push and release it. Lately, the share of voice on Twitter has gone up too, with users demanding a Windows Phone version of popular apps.”
So will Blippar for Windows Phone now be given equal priority to the iOS and Android app?
“Most of our users are on iOS and Android, therefore they are given a higher priority,” adds Mitra. “Having said that, we have built our platform in a scalable way with a unified codebase which leads to minimum impact in change management of features. The UI layer is unique to Windows and required separate work and is marginally behind the mothership product.”
However, Blippar does have a dedicated in-house team working on Windows Phone which is a good sign – often if an app is outsourced to an agency or third-party developer, this doesn’t bode well for future updates.
“It’s (Windows Phone is) a clear ‘number three’ player in the market, and doing well in emerging economies where Nokia is still dominant,” continues Rish. “All I can say right now is that it’s not make or break for any business model, but a source for acquiring content-hungry Windows Phone users. Their vision (Microsoft’s) to unify and create a consistent experience across all platforms might help them become a stronger force. We plan to support Windows Phone indefinitely from where we see it today.”
With tens of millions of downloads across all platforms since its launch in 2009, Runtastic has become something of a behemoth in the fitness-tracking space. It’s actually had a Windows Phone app since early 2011, and has generally given it regular updates, even though less than 5% of its total users access the app.
“To be honest, we recognized this (a need to be on Windows Phone) very early on,” says Florian Gschwandtner, CEO & co-founder of Runtastic. “We’d like to offer our users the same exceptional experience on each platform and it doesn’t matter whether they’re a Windows Phone, Android or iPhone user.”
And what about priority and parity of features across all platforms?
“We try to offer a similar feature set across all platforms, but sometimes it’s not entirely possible due to technical obstacles like Bluetooth Smart support,” continues Gschwandtner. “Furthermore, we’re trying to implement special features, specific and unique to each platform. For example, this past year we did a Nokia Music integration exclusively for Windows Phone.”
As with Blippar, Runtastic has a dedicated in-house team of developers, which I guess is to be expected given it’s been catering for the platform for nearly three years.
Runtastic actually has a slew of other fitness-related apps – such as ones for homebodies and one that focuses on getting you a six-pack. With that in mind, Gschwandtner says we can expect a release of several new apps from Runtastic on Microsoft’s mobile platform in the new year.
“We experienced growth on Windows Phone within the past year, and we definitely believe in the platform for the future,” he says. “In January, we’re already planning to release several new apps for Windows Phone.”
The future of Windows Phone
Hearing upbeat comments such as this certainly gives a lot of hope for Windows Phone. Sure, there still isn’t the level of support for native apps that many would like (though I still insist a lack of native apps isn’t the major problem), but there is enough going on to suggest there’s much more to come. And these kinds of things tend to snowball – the more activity there is, the more buzz is created, the more people get excited about this third platform, and things accelerate.
The next year or two will be crucial for Windows Phone. With the might of Microsoft behind it, which will now have full control of Nokia’s hardware moving forward – including the impressive line of Lumia handsets – it’ll be interesting to see how much market share it can garner.