My post last Friday elicited some comments that I wanted to address, and I felt that a new post was more appropriate than just replying to the comments. Some found it amusing that I picked Starbucks and United as examples of apps that Microsoft should be focused on, because of course what really excites people is Words With Friends. So let’s explore that a bit more.
How would people feel about buying a smartphone that didn’t support Facebook? Yelp? TripAdvisor? Twitter? OpenTable? Three years ago few would have cared. Two years ago these were the hot apps that sold phones. This year buyers assume that phones have these apps and if they don’t then “don’t call us we’ll call you”. Fortunately Windows Phone does have these, and has gone even further with its integration of Facebook and Twitter into the core user experience of the phone. So we have Social Networking, and Physical World Interaction, as two key categories of applications that people just expect to be available on a smartphone. Of course the physical world interaction apps I mention here are at the intersection with social networking. Yelp and TripAdvisor in particular are social networking tools for navigating the physical world. Last year my wife and I were in Rome and Vienna. How did we find hotels and things to do? TripAdvisor. A few weeks ago I went to Las Vegas, how did I find restaurants? Yelp. How did I make reservations? OpenTable. My Sister-in-Law and a friend both used OpenTable to make reservations when we saw them this weekend. Indeed OpenTable has become the defacto restaurant reservations service in the U.S., so if you dine out frequently (particularly in a big city) you really want an app for it on your phone.
Let’s take another physical world interaction app that is missing from Windows Phone, Red Box (which has become the most popular way to rent DVDs in the U.S.). When I checked today the Red Box app was #155 (out of 100s of thousands) on Apple’s list of most popular free apps. Tweetdeck, which one Nokia Lumia 900 reviewer called out as a critical missing app from the Windows Phone Marketplace, isn’t on the App Store top 200 list (and judging from the rating of the iPhone version, is probably not in the top 1000, or even 10,000 either). Should Microsoft prioritize getting an official Red Box app or convincing Twitter to create a Windows Phone version of Tweetdeck?
Let’s even compare Fooducate (the app the WSJ called out) to Red Box. Fooducate is indeed #10 on the App Store’s list of free Health and Fitness apps, but it doesn’t make the overall top 200 list. So once again Red Box seems more important than Fooducate. Note that I’m not saying Fooducate wouldn’t be a great addition to the Windows Phone Marketplace, I’m just trying to prioritize Microsoft’s efforts to get maximum bang for the buck. Even within Health and Fitness the Weight Watchers Mobile app is ranked #7, and was promised for Windows Phone back around WP7 launch. It still isn’t available (though they did make a small subset, a Points Plus calculator, available). Even if you want to focus on Health and Fitness, I would argue Microsoft should prioritize physical world Weight Watchers over pure Internet Fooducate.
In the early days of planning for the Windows Phone developer platform there was definitely a focus on the top 100 (ish) apps on the iPhone. Microsoft was understanding what they needed to perform well and making sure the development platform could accommodate their needs. No doubt the app recruitment effort also targeted them. This focus on the Top Apps, perhaps the Top 1000, needs to continue. So getting Zynga to pay attention to Windows Phone is critical, as is making sure popular Social Networking tools like Pinterest are available. And Microsoft also needs more unique content, something the focus on XBox Live (amongst other things) was supposed to bring. But I see the physical world interaction apps as both a “price of entry” issue, and part of Windows Phone’s potential competitive advantage.
Looking at Windows Phone’s main marketing message, it boils down to personal productivity. Make it easy to stay in contact with your friends. Make it easy to find restaurants and other forms of entertainment. Make photography easy and ubiquitous. In other words, make it easy to interact with the physical world. Take a look at the Smoked By Windows Phone challenge, do you see “Play Words With Friends” as one of them? Windows Phone runs apps, lots of apps, and it does it as well as the competition. But once you are in Words With Friends it really doesn’t matter if you are running IOS, Android, or Windows Phone. So Microsoft’s real differentiator is how they can make your physical interactions with the world better than their competitors. They need to make Windows Phone better not just at finding restaurants, but at making reservations. They need Windows Phone to be better at filling prescriptions, replacing the need to carry around dozens of loyalty cards, tracking package shipments, buying products, making and keeping doctors appointments, etc. than their competitors. That’s how they’ll win. But think about where they are today. Local Scout will let me find a Starbucks (if one is close) faster than is possible on the iPhone or Android, but on the latter two I can actually pay for my coffee. I can’t currently do that with Windows Phone, so which is really the better user productivity tool?
One of the earliest hit iPhone apps was “Find My Car”. Another was iFart. They each contributed to the iPhone’s buzz. Find My Car represented the iPhone’s substance, iFart represented its sizzle. You need both, but Windows Phone is ultimately going to win (or lose) on substance. And if I had to prioritize my resources I’d make eliminating the substance gap with the iPhone and Android my number one priority.