Windows Phone 7's Impossible App Mission

Microsoft's already done a lot right with Windows Phone 7, and it's not even out until late this year. But after today's announcements, there's one lingering question: How can Windows Phone 7 possibly catch up, in terms of apps?

To be clear, the problem is as follows: When Windows phone 7 launches later this year, it will face the same Catch-22 as any new app platform does: Without an audience to sell to, why would developers invest in creating complicated apps? And if a platform doesn't have these great apps, why would people switch to it?

It's something I've been wondering about since the day we found out that Windows Phone 7, despite a February unveiling and a March developers' announcement, won't actually ship until the end of this year, and which I was hoping might be cleared up today. It wasn't.

We only have to look as far as Palm to see that getting apps off to a slow start can be severely detrimental—even fatal—to a platform. But a comparison to webOS, or even Android, doesn't do Windows Phone 7's situation justice. By the end of this year, the platforms WinPho 7 will be competing with—namely iPhone and Android—will be even more deeply entrenched with users than they are now. And the same goes for developers: The 30,000+ apps in the Android Market are trending skyward, and the 140,000+ apps in App Store aren't showing any signs of slowing down, not to mention the iPad apps that are about to flood the index. Now, I know sheer quantity of apps doesn't mean everything, but it means something—the iPhone's got a better selection of great apps than Android, and Android's got a better selection of great apps than webOS or BlackBerry. So, come holiday season 2010, smartphone buyers will have a choice between phones with a vast library of apps to do just about anything you can think of, and Windows Phone 7.

So what can Microsoft possibly do? I didn't know, so I asked Microsoft Developer Division VP Scott Guthrie, How bring people to your platform?

It's a lot easier to build a Windows Phone app compared to, say, an iPhone or Android App now. Ultimately developers are interested in, can I build cool apps? Is it easy? How painful is it? Can I make money?

To a degree, he's right. Microsoft has seriously lowered the entry barriers for Windows Phone 7 app development, setting development tools free as of today, and demonstrating on stage how simple it is to create an app from scratch. (Guthrie himself created a barebones Twitter app in real real time in front of the audience.) And yeah, the launch partners announced today are pretty great.

I think this event, and this conference, hopefully catapults interest, and based on the success we've had in the last three weeks, in terms of getting some of these partners interested... I feel pretty confident we're going to have a pretty wide range of apps available at launch.

And they will! But you know who else had fantastic launch partners? Palm. Gathering a bunch of high profile names on short notice is a PR coup, but it's not a long-term salve.

The real question is, how do you lure developers away from established, surefire moneymakers, like the App Store, or increasingly, the Android Market? What do you say to an iPhone developer right now, when you don't have a product in consumers' hands? Joe Belfiore:

If I were sitting here face to face with an iPhone app developer now, I'd say, I think we're worthy of consideration. I think, hopefully, if people have seen the user experience we're building, and seen some of the reception and reaction that's happened, with real people in the real world looking at what the story is, that at minimum, it piques their interest and says, this looks like a smartphone platform that's going to have some degree of success.

This is Microsoft's struggle: To convince developers that, despite a release date of late 2010, minimal hardware announcements, an entirely new platform and user experience (which most of them will not experience on hardware before launch), they should invest time and money in Windows Phone 7. They're making the literal act of developing as simple and inviting as possible; they're giving developers a massive lead time to develop, and get familiar with the tools; they're garnering as much hype with the public as they can.

But what Microsoft can't do is will Window Phone 7 handsets into the public's hands. They're going to have to earn that, and they're going to need developers' help. And as excited as they—and we—might be about this thing, the earliest we could hope for Windows Phone 7 to have the kind of app power it needs to be competitive with the smartphone giants—who, by the way, aren't going to be sitting still for the next year—is the middle of 2011. That's the Windows Phone 7 problem—and it's out of Microsoft's hands.