Windows Phone 7 Apps: What We Know, What We Don't

The first time Microsoft mentioned apps today, it was to mock Apple, and they completely nailed what's wrong with the iPhone app metaphor. But apps define the smartphone experience, so what's the plan for Windows Phone 7? It's... coming together.

When the iPhone launched without apps, Microsoft countered with the most impressive, humiliating figures it could rake up: We have thousands of developers! Over ten thousand apps! Years of development! A thriving ecosystem! Then the iPhone got apps, and everyone else, from Google to BlackBerry to Palm, consolidated and organized their ecosystems. By the time Microsoft managed to do the same, it was too late—the Windows Mobile platform was dying. The ecosystem was rotten to the core, the core being a limping, tired, and deeply ugly relic of an operating system. Microsoft is right to leave this behind with Windows Phone 7, but they've got some serious catching up to do. So how do you close a two-year lead? Good question!

Microsoft is staying vague on their app strategy until the MIX conference next month, when they'll lay out their plans in full. What they've done today is paint their app strategy in broad strokes, and drop some telling clues. The picture that's emerging is of apps that mingle with the operating system, rather than sit inside of it; of an earnest attempt to forget (and make up for) years of lost time with WinMo 6.x; of a company that isn't afraid to sacrifice sacred tenets of its prior strategy—and perhaps even multitasking—to make things work; of a platform with massive promise, but an incredibly steep climb ahead of it. Here's what we know.

The Basics

Windows Phone 7 is a clean break. Barring some kind of emulator, Windows Mobile apps just won't work. They'll have to be developed anew, written with a new set of tools and leveraging a whole different set of APIs. As anyone who's used Windows Mobile can attest, this is a good thing. Microsoft needed to cut this dead weight to survive.

Windows Phone 7 Apps: What We Know, What We Don't

To the user, Windows Phone 7 amounts to a series of hubs: one for music, one for people, etc. They're like live widgets, previewing information from deeper inside the OS, and serving as application launchers. Third party apps won't just integrate with the hubs, they may depend on them. Earlier today, Wilson interviewed Windows Phone head honcho Joe Belfiore, and here's how he answered our question: "How do you integrate apps that you don't design in house [into hubs and the OS in general]?":

What we're going to try to do is ensure the developers have a great set of tools that helps them fit right in. The main idea of the hubs is to bring things together in a way that users can go to a single place and find the stuff they're looking for, and applications play a role in that. Applications can also add benefit that's distinct from the hubs... In some cases [a hub is] guiding the users to the apps, in other cases it's pulling data from the app or the app's associated service

There is an app launcher menu in Windows Phone 7, which keeps a simple list of all the apps you've got installed, whether they're integrated into a hub or not. But it's clear that the app launcher grid—or as Microsoft called it, the "sameness"—is something Microsoft trying to avoid, and that the list is secondary. Apps are intended to launch from, and in some cases be a part of, the hubs.

The App Store

Windows Phone 7 Apps: What We Know, What We Don't


As for an app store, Windows Phone 7 will have the Marketplace, which is where you'll be able to "easily discover and load the phone with certified applications and games," according to Microsoft. You probably won't be able to download from outside of it. Also not clear is how this'll actually play out. A two-tiered download strategy that separates games from the rest of the apps is possible, as is a single, unified storefront. UPDATE: Here's the storefront.

In today's demos you could spot a Marketplace menu item, though it was housed in the Zune hub. The only apps shown on the demo unit were music services, which is odd—they're clearly keeping apps under wrap until MIX.

Windows Phone 7 Apps: What We Know, What We Don't

Windows Phone 7 Apps: What We Know, What We Don't

Multitasking (Or Maybe Not)

And finally, you can't talk about smartphone without talking about multitasking. The iPhone doesn't do it. Android does. Palm does. Windows Mobile did. This issue was at the center of virtually every comparison of smartphone OSes, and gave iPhone critics—including some Microsofties—endless snark fodder. So, obviously, Windows Phone 7 supports multitasking, right? Don't be so sure. From Wilson's interview with Belfiore, again:

Yeah, so the core operating system in Windows Phone 7 Series phones is a modern multitasking operating system which we use for a lots of things. If you play music, for example, the music will play back as you navigate around the experience and be smooth and glitch-free and all those sorts of things. If you're using email, we have great support for push email, and that happens in the background.

Technically, this does describe multitasking, but it's multitasking in the strict, limited sense that the iPhone multitasks, which is to say, it's really not. So, uh, what about 3rd party apps?

For third party applications, we'll get into a lot more detail on this in MIX, but we have a few ways we going to make sure that 3rd parties can bring their value to the user even when the app is not running. Live tiles are an example. Data feeds in the hubs are another example.

If applications can run in the background, why would Microsoft need to "make sure" that they have ways of staying useful when they're not running? Could it be that (!!!) Windows Phone 7 doesn't multitask? Or that if it does, it's highly managed? Yes. Yes it could.

The Big Questions

Microsoft hasn't said a word about the next SDK, developers policies, or app limitations. We have no idea if apps will have to conform to a strict set of design rules, or if the SDK will encourage a consistent aesthetic, like the iPhone's does.

And while it may be instructive to look back at the current App Marketplace for a glimpse at their developer strategy, it might not. It's significant that Microsoft has been so vague about this so far. It implies that there's something to announce beyond, "It's going to be just like what we're doing now." (Speaking of what they're doing now, those poor WinMo 6.x devs!They've just been thrown into the desert without food or water, basically. Though they should have seen it coming.)

And anyway, nobody doubts that Microsoft can put together a solid set of dev tools tools, or manage a developer program properly. The real questions about Windows Phone 7's apps are existential: Who's going to make them? How long until it's worth it for developers to move to the platform? Can iPhone developers be drawn away from Apple's ecosystem? Will game developers do their part to fulfill Microsoft's new mobile Xbox dream? These are massive uncertainties now, when Windows Phone 7 is the brightest, shiniest platform in town—just imagine what the landscape will look like a year from now, and how much more time, money, and experience app devs will have invested in the iPhone and Android.

It took Android about a year to reach a remotely comparable level of development to the iPhone, and that's being generous. With Windows Phone 7, you've got a series of phones that won't even hit the market until late 2010, that won't have a significant user base until months after that, and that'll be competing with two or three much more mature app platforms, with existing user bases in the tens of millions. Even if Microsoft does everything right—liberal app policies, a generous developer revenue share, a powerful SDK, and smooth, wide phone rollout—Windows Phone 7 might not catch up with its competition until 2012.

2012.

Don't rule out a gamechanging announcement at MIX next month, or underestimate how badly Microsoft wants to claw its way back to mobile relevancy. But Microsoft is rich, not magical—no matter how you cut it, and no matter how Microsoft fills in the blanks, this isn't going to be easy.