Why Windows 10 can’t fix Windows Phone

Ahead of Microsoft’s next reveal of Windows 10 later this week, lots of blogs and news outlets are talking up the promise of the new operating system to unify the PC and mobile versions and in the process “solve the app gap”. Most of what I’ve read, though, seems to look straight past a huge flaw in this whole concept, one that I’ve talked about several times in other places (notably in my in-depth Windows Phone report from a few weeks back – available here for free).  As such, I wanted to just quickly lay it out here for simplicity and clarity.

First, the theory: in Windows 10, Microsoft is creating a single operating system which will run across different form factors, with much of the underlying code shared and the rest tweaked by device type and size. This will allow developers to create apps which run 90% of the same code, with just some customizations for different device types and sizes. This, in turn, will allow Microsoft to tap into the vast number of Windows PC developers, who will now be able to port their apps to Windows Phone will very little additional work, which will drive a large number of new apps to the mobile platform, reducing the app gap relative to iOS and Android.

However, there’s a fundamental flaw in this argument, which is that the apps Windows Phone is missing simply don’t exist as desktop apps on Windows. Just think about it for a moment, and you’ll realize it’s empirically obvious: almost all the apps which are most popular on mobile are in one of these categories:

  • Games, which dominate the app stores, and tend to be mobile-only in many cases
  • Properties which exist as websites on the desktop and only exist as apps on the mobile side
  • Properties which are mobile-first and/or mobile-only, such as Instagram, Vine, Viber and so on.

But we don’t need to rely on gut feel here – it’s very easy to do the analysis. I’ve pasted below two small thumbnails which you can click on to expand to full size. They show tables for the top free iOS and Android apps as of today, according to App Annie. Against each of the apps I’ve completed several more columns to reflect the following data:

  • Is the app already in the Windows Phone store?
  • Is there a desktop app on Windows (any version, not just Windows 8)?
  • Is this an app which is actually a website rather than an app on the desktop?

I’ve then done some filters in the following columns to answer each of the following questions:

  • Of those apps which are not on Windows Phone today, are these available for Windows PCs today?
  • Of those apps which are not on Windows Phone today, are these available as a website on desktop?
  • Of those apps for which there is a desktop app on Windows today, are these also available on Windows Phone?

You can go ahead and have a look at the tables to see the results for yourself (they should open in a new window or tab by default):

Screenshot 2015-01-19 09.54.42Screenshot 2015-01-19 09.54.57

But here’s the summary:

  • Among the top 50 free iOS and Android apps, there is not one which is not on Windows Phone but exists as a desktop app on Windows
  • Among the top 50 free iOS and Android apps, there are a handful which exist as websites but not as desktop apps (almost all owned by either Google or Apple)
  • All of the top 50 free iOS and Android apps for which there is a Windows desktop app already exist as Windows Phone apps today.

In other words, if the theory is that sharing a code base across desktop and mobile will lead to desktop apps being ported to the mobile environment in greater numbers, within this sample at least this has no applicability at all. All the apps available on Windows PCs are already available on Windows Phone. A handful of the rest exist as websites on the desktop, but the vast majority simply don’t exist today on any flavor of Windows.

There are two important caveats here. Firstly, this analysis only looks at the top 50 apps, and a different pattern could theoretically emerge if one were to examine a longer list of apps. However, from what I’ve seen the patterns are broadly similar, and the same conclusions would apply. Secondly, this analysis focuses on the most popular apps, which are naturally dominated by consumer-facing applications and not those used in the enterprise. I do believe that there are cases where desktop apps exist for enterprises but not yet for Windows Phone, and in this case the theory behind Windows 10 may well have at least some applicability. But that’s a far cry from saying that Windows 10 will help to solve the app gap, which is fundamentally a consumer problem, not an enterprise one.

Having said all this, I’m very curious to see what Microsoft has to say this week with regard to the mobile flavor of Windows 10 in particular. I think it’s getting a lot right in Windows 10 more generally, but the real solution to fixing Windows Phone lies in making the platform more compelling to consumers, and not just at the low end where it’s currently so focused.

For further reading on Windows and Windows Phone:

An archive of all my previous posts from this site on Microsoft is here.

  • I think you’re missing another aspect: specifically, that Windows 10 will open up Windows “desktop” machines to apps written for mobile. Universal apps are modern, i.e., touch-enabled, sandboxed apps that will work on tablets and hybrids as well as via keyboard/mouse on desktops and traditional clamshell notebooks (some of which are themselves touch-enabled). The market for Windows apps will be significantly increased by virtue of including hundreds of millions of machines that previously required their own traditional Win32 applications.

    • Two problems with this approach: (a) it assumes (as Microsoft does) that the apps people want on these two platforms are the same and (b) there aren’t enough of the key apps on Windows Phone to begin with.

      • In the past, a mobile developer would have needed to develop a completely separate Win32 application for Windows 7, and that app would have been a traditional PC app–as you imply, not really suited to the classic PC environment. Now, and particularly with Universal apps, a developer can make a mobile-style app (full screen, touch-enabled, etc.) that runs on Windows as well as Windows Phone. With Windows 10, this will be even more fundamental to the platform. So, a mobile developer can now think, “If I make an app for ‘Windows,’ it will not only run on phones, but also on hundreds of millions of Windows machines. Oh, and with 90% of the core app being the same–all I need to do is tweak the app for different form factors.” Suddenly, the math becomes completely different and, I think, developing mobile Windows apps becomes much more compelling.

        • Yes, but this calculus really applies much more to Windows on the desktop than it does to Windows on the phone. What you’re talking about is getting more people upgraded to a Store-compliant version of Windows and thereby garnering not just 100-200 million users but several times that. In the context of all that, Windows Phone at well under 100m hardly makes a dent in the overall number. Either you already saw the logic in developing for Windows PCs, in which case you’ve likely already done a Windows Phone app, or you never have, in which case I don’t see this changing things much, especially as it relates to increasing the number of apps on Windows Phone (which is what this post is explicitly about). The vast majority of the apps Windows Phone is missing (or is very slow to get caught up on) are things that only exist as mobile apps and have no place as apps on the PC, such as Uber, Snapchat, Tinder and so on.

          In addition, with the changes to Windows 10 compared with Windows 8, and the rightful recognition that (a) not everyone has touch-enabled PC hardware and (b) even if they do, they may prefer to use a mouse and keyboard, assuming a touch-first paradigm works everywhere is a big mistake, arguably perpetuating the core problem with Windows 8 at the apps, rather than OS, layer this time around. Optimizing an app so that it works really well in both touch-centric phone environments and mouse/keyboard centric PC environments will take more than just tweaks to the UI – it requires fundamentally different thinking about how the app should work in each setting.

          • Valid points all. I hear what you’re saying, and I suppose my own position depends heavily on the continued proliferation of hybrid devices like the Surface Pro 3 and decent small tablets like the Dell Venue 8 Pro. In those cases, it’s more like the iPad and iPhone, in that the kinds of mobile apps you mention make sense on both form factors.If we’re only talking about purely traditional machines like desktops and clamshell notebooks, then yes, I see your point.

            Incidentally, I would propose that Windows Phone is closer to a tipping point than many people might suppose–Microsoft has sold a boatload of devices lately thanks to their low-cost push, and I’ve certainly noticed more apps being ported to the platform or finally updated over the last few months. As an example, Netflix finally issued an update that brought their Windows Phone app to parity. I don’t think they’d do that if there weren’t enough devices out there to matter.

          • Windows tablets are still selling in small numbers compared with both iOS and Android, and with hundreds of millions of iOS devices out there and over a billion Android devices, even combining Windows tablets and smartphones doesn’t add up to much in comparison. Windows Phone still faces huge challenges, not least the low-cost push you mention, which will add lots of customers who are unlikely to pay for apps to the platform (see the in-depth report I linked to in this post).

          • Well, it’s clearly a forward-looking strategy on Microsoft’s part. Sure, they might fail, but of course their strategy has to account for the possibility of success. In this case, success would mean Windows mobile devices (of all kinds) making up a significant enough market that mobile developers increasingly target it. How big does that market really need to be? I don’t know, but I see signs already that development is slowly starting to target Windows Phone. Honestly, I don’t find the app gap to be so horrendous even today that it’s such a dramatic leap to think that Microsoft can succeed in driving that market.

            Now, I’m not arguing that Windows Phone will ever beat out iOS or Android. I don’t think that either is possible, honestly. I think Microsoft knows that as well, hence their cross-platform support with Office and their cloud services. However, I think Windows Phone could become _viable_, enough so that it wouldn’t be a non-starter for an enterprise to choose as their platform (with its inherent security and management strengths). I’m think that achieving a 10% or so market share would be the objective, and which would make it a viable third option.

            You make some very good arguments, as does CitizenjaQ above re: Win32 developers targeting Windows Phone (and your subsequent rebuttal). It’s all terribly fluid, and a lot can go right and wrong for Microsoft. I just happen to believe that however you slice it, the Universal apps and OneCore strategies make a great deal of sense and are probably necessary if Microsoft is to have _any_ chance of success in creating a viable mobile platform.

          • Windows 10 is universal. People want good tablet apps and because Android tablet and iPad users suffer because their apps are not universal. Why would I not want Instagram on my tablet? Isn’t that a ‘mobile’ app? My Windows tablet has great Instagram clients. I would love to use my tablet for SMS, Uber, Snapchat, why not?
            Universal also means Xbox. It means getting always-on notifications for your Uber cab, your SMS, your Instagram on your Xbox or PC. Other future always-n technology from Microsoft are widescreen displays for household or business use like Surface Hub and Hololens. Again. Universal notifications.

          • I’m not sure what you mean by Android and iOS not being universal across smartphones and tablets – they obviously both are today, in a way Windows has never been. Perhaps you can explain further what you meant here. Instagram runs as an app on iPads and Android tablets today, but it’s optimized for mobile phones, which is what people take the vast majority of pictures with today.

            Notifications across systems doesn’t require a “universal” OS – iOS and OS X do this just fine today, and most apps have their own notification backend to do this. Microsoft has obviously already demonstrated how Office can run with pretty much full fidelity across iPhones, iPads and Android tablets, which obviously don’t share an OS.

  • CitizenjaQ

    “However, there’s a fundamental flaw in this argument, which is that the apps Windows Phone is missing simply don’t exist as desktop apps on Windows.”

    I don’t think that Microsoft wants existing desktop apps on Windows Phone. What it wants is all those millions of desktop developers who are comfortable with and invested in Windows. The easier Microsoft makes it for developers to create new apps for both desktop and mobile at the same time, the more likely the developers are to actually do it.

    With such a small market share, Windows Phone doesn’t offer developers much ROI. It’s not worth it to make apps for so few customers, and the customer base won’t increase until there are more apps. Chicken-and-egg problems are notoriously hard to solve, but leveraging the desktop is one advantage Microsoft has over Apple and Google. I can even imagine developers creating fun little apps that run in a window on the desktop and oh, hey, by the way, if you want to take it with you, it runs exactly the same on Windows Phone!

    • Your argument appears to be that it’s not so much specific apps as the developers behind the apps that Microsoft expects to work across mobile and PC. That may make a tiny bit more sense, but again the traditional Windows developers aren’t necessarily the same people that Microsoft needs to attract to mobile. What it really needs to do is get the developers already working on iOS and Android to port their apps across. There are apps that are somewhat substitutable by equivalent ones – camera apps, note-taking apps and the like that have generic functions. But many of the most popular apps include ecosystems which can’t be easily replicated. In other words, Microsoft may be able to get some small number of new apps that will add value to the platform in this way, but not the ones it needs the most.

      • No no no. Why does no one understand the big picture, strategy???
        The more people use the new, Modern version of Windows, they will see that there are more options than just Android and iPad. That’s it. Simple. People think of Windows 95 and Windows XP, they can’t imagine it on a tablet. So Windows 10 will introduce billions to mobile Windows.
        They will want it on their tablets if they have it on their PCs. It will integrate with all their settings, Cortana, their games, their Xbox.
        Having tablet apps is what will lead to Phone apps, and both stem from Microsoft’s advantage on the desktop. See?
        Either way, Win 32 programs will continue to be developed and make money for Microsoft, and Xbox will too. Windows phone already has a passionate following, once Microsoft has freed up resources from finishing with Windows 10, doesn’t it stand to reason they will focus on dominating mobile?

        • I don’t think Microsoft has been unfocused on “dominating mobile” in the last few years. Both Microsoft and the Nokia devices business bet essentially everything they had in mobile on Windows Phone and Lumia devices respectively, and look where it’s got them. I don’t think a lack of focus is the issue here.

          There’s an underlying assumption in what you say that people will somehow just love Windows on their PCs, as if they have in the past. Though I think Windows 10 makes some improvements, it’s largely about fixing the problems introduced with the wrongheaded Windows 8, and I don’t see much there that’s going to inspire passion in users. Nadella’s closing remarks at the Windows 10 event indicated he gets this: most people use Windows because they need to; what Microsoft needs to do is get people to first choose Windows proactively when they have other options, and then to become passionate about it. As I wrote here (https://techpinions.com/from-needing-windows-to-loving-windows/38174) that’s far from straightforward.

  • worleyeoe

    Let’s see what MS announces tomorrow. Of course universal apps aren’t going to be the silver bullet. The silver bullet is getting the 535, 735 and 830 devices on all four U.S. carriers selling for $139, $189 and $239 respectively, backed by a real, hip ad campaign. And for our long suffering WP loving friends who have had to go without a flagship, take off the globes and release a Surface phone. If you really want people to wet their pants, put the Intel Atom Broxton chipset in it and then release a docking station. A quad core, 5.7″, 1440p, 4 GBs RAM, 128 GB storage with microsd should do nicely. One device and you’re done.

    • I think that today’s Windows 10 announcement shows that while Universal apps might not be the savior all by itself, but it’s a compelling and important piece of the overall puzzle. Microsoft is doing some exciting things.

      • worleyeoe

        I agree completely, but the 830 launch just left a really bad taste in my mouth. They should have came out and said, “Look we’re not going to have a flagship phone for another 10 months, but we’ve got this fantastic midrange 830 that we’re going o sell for $249”.

        And let’s be honest here. Until MS gets a low, mid and high phone on VW, AT&T and TM, acting like apps are the silver bullet is only part of the problem. VW, AT&T and TM sales reps have to have a full range of phones to offer at great prices. There are tons of adults over 30 who don’t need every app know to man and games for that matter.

        Apps are one thing, but great pricing and great marketing get people’s attention. I need to see MS commercials about their phones that show how they can be transformational to the degree that Apple’s iPad Air commercials do. Stop with all the “productivity” yahoo.

  • Julian P

    Meh. What you’re missing is apps that already exist on WP and as a Windows Metro app. Facebook, Amazon, Google etc. And really, 7 apple-exclusive apps? At least make a list of apps that exist on iOS and Android.

    • There are 7 Apple-exclusive apps in the top 50 – it’s a simple fact. The way to do this kind of analysis is to be consistent about what you’re measuring across platforms.

      And I’m not missing apps that are on WP and Metro – that’s exactly what I’ve looked at here. About half of those which are on PC and WP are Metro-style, the rest are classic PC apps.

  • frank

    While you are technically correct i think the fact that most people instantly hated windows 8 the moment they used it was the greatest Problem. If we see more people use Windows 10 and the windows 10 Apps then this might push windows desktop/phone as a whole a bit further. However that is only an educated guess your thesis is still very valid: Just because i can share part of the codebasis doesn’t mean that that will fix anything at all.

    • I absolutely think Windows 10 will fix many of the problems with Windows 8 and, especially if priced aggressively, will drive strong upgrades, which will certainly dramatically increase the number of people who can consume Store-based apps. That – to me – is the far bigger win from Windows 10 than any benefit that spills over to phones.

  • Fair enough – I may have missed some. But all of those have Windows Phone apps too, which just continues the pattern. And of course all are also websites on the desktop.

  • This person is clearly not a Windows user. I have a tablet and a phone, and I know that there are plenty of great apps that are currently exclusive to one or the other. Windows is much stronger by making it easier for great apps to be available for either device.
    This logic is all trumped up. Why exclude the other million apps the three stores have combined, and base the entire analysis on the top 50 unpaid apps? Smallest subset you could sample!
    The argument isn’t just that sharing the code base will increase market share, it’s the fact that there will now be integration in your Windows experience between devices, and in order to have that advantage, shared code is needed to help the developers do their job.
    Futhermore, Xbox was not taken into consideration in this article. Or Microsoft Office!

    • Did you actually read all the way through the piece?
      (a) There was a caveat at the end about the sample size but I chose the top 50 because they’re the most popular and therefore most likely to be demanded / seen to be missing on Windows Phone.
      (b) It’s not so much about apps simply being on one or the other, but about them being on Windows and not on Windows Phone, because that’s what will help Windows Phone. So that narrows the list somewhat. Then you have to think about what’s actually useful to have in both places. From an enterprise perspective, there’s quite a bit, as I mentioned in my other caveat at the end, but from a consumer perspective the vast majority of what’s popular in smartphones doesn’t exist / doesn’t make sense on a desktop, or is already performed perfectly adequately by web-based services on the desktop.
      (c) the article is specifically about whether making Windows universal would help Windows Phone. There are other potential benefits to that approach, but this article is explicitly not about those.
      (d) this article was written before last week’s event, as you hopefully noticed from the date stamp. As such, the Xbox benefits hadn’t been outlined yet by Microsoft, but again this is about Windows Phone specifically.
      (e) as mentioned above, Office can work perfectly well (and already does) as a cross-platform suite without a shared OS code base. Nothing Microsoft demoed at last week’s event (again, after this piece was written) in relation to Office would have been impossible without a Universal approach to Windows 10.

  • Thanks for your comments. Some of them seem to make the same assumption as others have, which is that Microsoft’s market share is somehow going to increase in the key markets here in the coming months and years, which would be a reversal of current trends. I don’t see anything in Windows 10 on the desktop or mobile side that suggests this will happen. Windows Phone’s market share has been shrinking, and Windows’ market share of PCs has been shrinking too as Apple gains ground. The lack of compelling apps on Windows Phone is a key reason for the challenges on the mobile side, and Windows 10 has been sold (in multiple discussions I’ve had with Microsoft executives) as a solution for the app problem. This piece outlines why it likely won’t solve that problem, which in turn makes it unlikely Microsoft will make significant headway with Windows Phone except at the low end, where apps are less important and WP has something of an edge performance-wise against cheap Android devices.

  • Kruegerman

    What you’re failing to recognize is that the Windows user-base is a huge, untapped market for those app developers that have focused on iOS and Android. The fact that there isn’t a Windows version of an app NOW is irrelevant. These developers of the so-called “Top 50” mobile apps will disregard Windows universal apps at their own peril. With the free upgrade from not only Windows 8/8.1, but also Windows 7, the uptake for Windows 10 will be huge.

    • I absolutely agree that the uptake for Windows 10 will be huge. But it doesn’t solve the problem that the apps people want on mobile are not the same as those they want on Windows PCs, for the most part. If anything, they exist as websites in the desktop world, as per the piece.

  • VISU

    Very interesting article, I agree with most of what the author has written

  • iBeginner

    can new tools for developers fix this?