We’re just hours away from what will hopefully be an enlightening and exciting Windows Phone 8 launch. I must admit I’ve mostly been ignoring Windows Phone the last few months . It’s hard to get excited, or even pay attention, when Microsoft is trying so hard to keep everyone in the dark. Hardware announcements with no software details? No upgradability of old devices, and little information on the WP 7.8 release that will cover those as well as new low-end devices? I just tuned the Windows Phone world out. We’ll see if Microsoft can regain my attention tomorrow. If they can’t get me interested I don’t know how they’ll get anyone interested. Sigh.
One of the manifestations of Microsoft’s Windows Phone behavior the last 6 months is that WP8 will launch before the general developer community has gained access to the WP8 SDK. It seems odd that Microsoft seemingly doesn’t want apps that take advantage of new WP8 capabilities available at launch. Or does it? More worrying is that they don’t seem to mind alienating developers, which has clearly happened. So what is going on here?
Of course rumors that WP8 ran late, and that the SDK wasn’t ready for prime time, probably have a basis in fact. That would explain why we didn’t see a developer event with SDK availability months ago but not why the SDK hasn’t been released yet.
Of course we know that the WP team is trying to keep some consumer features secret so, unlike last week’s Windows 8 launch, there is actually some news tomorrow. But they could have handled that by providing an SDK with features removed. The original plan for WP7 was to bring an SDK to Mix with a mule UI so the Metro UI could be kept secret until launch. Pressure to show that Microsoft was doing something in the mobile space forced them to disclose the Metro UI before Mix, so the mule idea made no sense. But they certainly could have used a similar plan to get an SDK to developers for WP8.
That brings me to two ideas that I think could really be the main reasons for holding back the SDK. Either one or both may have been in play. Developers won’t like either of them.
The first factor at play may be the release of Windows 8. I half-seriously tweeted the other day that perhaps they intentionally held back the WP8 SDK to keep developers’ attention on Windows 8. I think this dynamic might have been at play, though not as explicitly as I just stated it. A product group owns a very small percentage of the resources involved in supporting developers. They need DevDiv to create tooling for them. They need DPE to run most of the evangelism activities. They need industry marketing groups to work with the ISVs and IT shops they are responsible for. They need the Microsoft field organization, sales reps and technical specialists, to encourage and work with their accounts in creating apps. And they need MCS to train and have available consulting resources to help clients create apps. And I think every one of those organizations was told “Priority 1 is Windows 8, Priority 2 is Windows 8, Priority 3 is Windows 8,…Priority 10 is everything else”. Seriously. Windows 8 is that important to Microsoft’s future. And so the Windows Phone team found themselves without the support they needed for breadth developer engagement. This forced them to concentrate their efforts on selected key developers, which is why we saw a targeted release of the WP8 SDK.
But I think another factor may be at play. If you examine the results of making developer tools and SDKs available way in advance first for WP7 and then for Windows 8 you see something very disturbing. The numbers of apps grows quickly, but app quality is low to moderate. The broad reach approach does not result in a plethora of high quality apps.
The Windows Phone Marketplace ended up with 125,000 apps yet misses many of the key ones. Small developers created apps that read the RSS feeds for various news sources, for example but the new sources themselves ignored WP7. The RSS feeds are no substitute for the full news app. Starbucks didn’t bring their app to Windows Phone so some Seattle-area Starbucks fans created one of their own, but it doesn’t have all the functionality of the official app. Uber didn’t do a Windows Phone app, but someone else did. Unfortunately it just grabs your address using GPS and formats an SMS message. Sonos didn’t do an app, a third party did one that requires you’re running the Sonos app on a PC. There are numerous lame travel and other apps.
Note that Apple and Android also have the low quality app problem, except they also have the high quality and official apps. Microsoft needs more of the later.
This suggests that if you have limited resources to spend on getting apps into your app store you are better off narrowly targeting them towards getting the important apps from their official sources. Once you do that you can then expand your efforts to attract the broad developer community.
There are other benefits to having a small targeted developer program. NDAs work with small audiences, not large audiences. You can spend more time gathering feedback from the participants. And so on.
So why haven’t the broad set of developers seen the WP8 SDK yet? I’d bet on all of the above being part of the answer. But perhaps the last one is the most important for the future of Windows Phone. If the Windows Phone team successfully engaged with the key applications developers, so that WP8 ships with the right high quality apps available then it will be healthy for the platform. And the broad developer community will jump on board. If they either didn’t engage those key developers, or failed in their effort to get the apps on board, then they’ve also pissed away the broad developer community. And dealt Windows Phone a mortal blow. We’ll get our first indication of which it is in just a few hours.