With mobile phones, sexy hardware is all very well–but the main purpose of sexy hardware is to run useful (or fun) software. And the vast majority of the software that today’s phones run is written not by phone operating system companies but by third-party developers.
So one of the very biggest questions about Microsoft’s upcoming Windows Phone 7 isn’t whether it looks slick and functional (it does) or if it’ll be a cakewalk for the company to reenter the mobile OS wars at this late date (it won’t). It’s whether enough software companies will build cool Windows Phone software quickly enough to make the platform feel like it’s part of the App Era.
As I’ve met with mobile software companies over the past few months, I’ve had a hard time getting a sense of Windows Phone 7′s prospects. Almost all the ones I’ve asked have said that they’re taking a wait-and-see attitude. But Microsoft has been holding an event at its Silicon Valley campus for some of the mobile developers who belong to its BizSpark program for startups. The companies at the meeting are convening in an auditorium to crank away at Windows phone 7 apps. Microsoft employees are providing both technical and business advice.
I visited with some of the developers yesterday–including name-brand companies and some I wasn’t familiar with–and came away feeling cautiously optimistic.
I saw rough drafts of Windows Phone 7 versions of several apps:
- Ustream, the personal video broadcasting services (the WinPhone one will only offer viewing at first, not broadcasting);
- Flixster, the hub for movie information, reviews, and trailers;
- PageOnce, which melds together information from your credit card accounts, bills, accounts, and other sources
- Hint, from a stealthy startup called Cellixis which is building a “personal concierge” service to provide suggestions about restaurants and other local businesses–and which decided to scrap plans for an iPhone version and launch only on Windows Phone;
- YomoMedia, which is bringing its Windows Mobile feed reader to Windows Phone 7.
The interesting thing about the applications I saw was that all the companies involved seemed to be working hard to build real Windows Phone 7 apps. Their WinPhone interfaces weren’t rehashes of versions for other platforms: They take advantage of distinctive WinPhone features like Live Tiles (which are hybrids of desktop icons and widgets) and Panorama view (which lets you drill into information by swiping through screens). If every Windows Phone 7 developer takes this approach, the ecosystem will feel more like the coherent universe of iPhone apps than like Android, where there’s hardly any consistency from one app to another.
I also chatted with some folks from social gaming company Digital Chocolate but didn’t see what they were working on. And social networking Loopt, digital comics company Graphic.ly, consumer electronics research service Retrevo, and other companies I didn’t speak with were at Microsoft’s event.
The fact that a bunch of developers are enthusiastic about Windows Phone 7 doesn’t guarantee anything, of course. The third-party apps the platform needs most are top-notch ones for services such as Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, and Kindle–and there’s no official news about any of these yet. And while quality is more important than quantity, Windows Phone will also need a critical mass of apps in major categories. (This we already know: Every review of the first Windows Phone 7 handsets will note that iPhone and Android have vastly larger quantities of third-party programs than Windows Phone does.)
Ultimately, most developers are going to gravitate towards mobile OSes that offer the potential to reach lots of consumers and the possibility of making money. Even once Windows Phone 7 is out there, it’ll be a while before anyone can read its vital signs. (Hey, I was optimistic about the Palm Pre’s chances at first.) But Microsoft has a long history of being really good at making its platforms attractive propositions for third-party companies. It’s even funding the development of Windows Phone apps. If the WinPhone programs that are available on day one live up to the promise of the ones I saw, I think there’s a good chance that people will be pleasantly surprised by the third-party software situation.