October 2010

Volume 25 Number 10

Editor’s Note - A Few of My Favorite App Things

By Keith Ward | October 2010

Keith WardWindows Phone 7 will be out possibly as early as the month you read this—October—although no firm release date had been announced as of this writing. Obviously, Windows Phone 7 represents a lot of risk for Microsoft—and a lot of potential.

There’s no getting around the fact that Microsoft is late to the smartphone game, with the iPhone and Android gobbling up market share. But, in my opinion, it’s not too late—not by a long shot. Right now the aforementioned competitors are the main game in town: HP hasn’t given any clues as to what will happen with the Palm Pre phone since it bought Palm, and the BlackBerry has no juice at all. That means there’s absolutely room for another entry, and Microsoft is working hard to make sure Windows Phone 7 becomes that third major player.

To do that, it will all be about—say it with me (and skip a little bit, if you’re feeling brave)—developers, developers, developers, developers! Previews of the UI are encouraging, and I love the fact that Microsoft hasn’t copied what Apple and Google have done with their interfaces, coming up with something completely different.

But at the end of the day, folks buy smartphones because of the apps they can put on them. It will be crucial for the developer community to have a heaping helping of apps ready to go at launch, and many more soon after. If those apps aren’t outstanding—and they need to be, given the competition’s head start—it will make the hill that much higher to climb. So, putting on my consumer hat, here’s what I think are the key features of any Windows Phone 7 app, in order of importance:

  1. Price. Studies continue to show that the lowest-priced and free apps are the most popular. That’s no revelation, but worth keeping on the front burner of your go-to-market strategy. It’s tempting, when you’ve put in six months of development on something, to assume that customers will want to pony up for your brilliant app. The reality is, however, that you’ll have more competition in your space—whatever your space is —than you’ve probably ever had before. That means making a calculation on whether a competitive price will bring in enough downloads to offset the lower price. I urge you to consider this point very, very carefully; it may be the thing that makes or breaks your success in the Windows Phone 7 market.
  2. Stability. No matter how entertaining your game is, how useful your password-management app is, or how revolutionary your guitar-tuner app, if it’s buggy from the beginning, it’s likely to be unused. And worse, the negative comments on the Microsoft app store (whatever form that store may take) could be fatal. Version 1 apps built with the attitude of “we’ll fix it with version 2” may not make it to version 2.
    I have a GPS app on my smartphone (the manufacturer shall remain anonymous—I’ll be getting Windows Phone 7 as soon as it’s out) that works about half the time. When it does work, it’s awesome. But it’s my least-favorite app, by a mile, because I never know if I’ll be able to use it. Again, you’ll probably have many competitors in your space; even if their apps are inferior to yours in terms of features, they’ll get the sales because they just work.
  3. Complexity, or lack thereof. Never, ever forget that these apps will be on tiny screens, with users pushing fingers around. A UI that tries to cram in too much is doomed. Simplicity wins the day here. Ask yourself if every menu bar, button and icon must be there. If not, be brutal and delete. You’re not going to get—nor do users expect—the kind of UI choices and options available with a typical desktop app. In fact, they’ll be expecting the opposite: a clean, spare, easy-to-navigate UI that involves as little reading as possible.
  4. Get it to market early. You have an opportunity to get your app the kind of attention and publicity that’s simply not available with apps from the “other guys.” This is a brand-new market, and now’s the time to plant your flag. I’m not saying to rush development and invalidate point No. 2, but instead to move resources around to give your Windows Phone 7 development team the ability to create a polished app that’s ready to go when the phone launches.

So get to work. I can’t wait to see what you come up with. Tell me about your app at mmeditor@microsoft.com.