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Does It Matter That Windows Phone Has 100k Apps Now?


The Nokia Lumia 900 smartphone

Photograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The Nokia Lumia 900 smartphone

Microsoft (MSFT) unlocked a new achievement this month, surpassing 100,000 apps for its Windows Phone mobile platform. The figure comes from All About Windows Phone, which tracks app data and has a treasure trove of detailed information about the software, ranging from price points to countries with the most apps available.

While the app catalog is growing, software for Windows Phone doesn’t seem to be boosting sales as much as software did for Android and iOS devices.

What’s happening with Windows Phone sales? Not much, to be honest, and certainly not as much as I anticipated after using Windows Phone 7.5 in August of last year. I expected that by the end of this year, Windows Phone could eke out a 10 percent market share and surpass BlackBerry. It’s still possible, but it’s going to take a massive effort. And Microsoft isn’t heading in the right direction: As of last month, its share of smartphone sales had declined over the prior 12 months.

Research firm Gartner notes that Windows Phone and Windows Mobile combined held only 1.9 percent of the market in the first quarter of 2012, down from 2.6 percent a year ago. There have been some recent reports that Microsoft is doing well in China—better than iOS, with a 7 percent share—but I’m skeptical: Windows Phone devices were just launched in China earlier this year, while the iPhone has been sold on multiple carriers there for some time. And as much as I like the usability of Windows Phone myself, I have yet to see others with a Microsoft device. Some of my colleagues have echoed the same.

Apps are important, but there’s more to a phone than apps. Here’s the funny thing and part of the reason the number of apps really means little, or not as much as it used to. Guess where the most apps are available for Windows Phone devices? According to the data, the U.S. leads the way, with 77,450 of the 100,000 available. Going back to the China example, where the phone is allegedly doing well: 33,063 apps are available to Windows Phones in China. Something doesn’t add up.

Actually, the app numbers do make sense, but they have less relevance to actual sales than they used to. As long as the top-tier titles are available for a platform, most users ought to be happy. And more of those titles are appearing on Windows Phone. But—and this is key—few, if any, are launching first on Windows Phone, which suggests developers don’t see the platform as the best place to introduce their wares.

Microsoft simply hasn’t given developers—or many consumers, for that matter—a compelling reason to opt for Windows Phone over Android or iOS. It’s not the apps; it’s a question of what Windows Phone can do for consumers and for developers already invested in Android or iOS. (As an interesting side note, 67 percent of Windows Phone apps are free.) Xbox Live ought to help, and so too will Windows 8, which shares the Metro interface, so there’s hope yet.

App growth means less today than it did four years ago. A closely watched metric for apps stores of late is the growth rate, but I counter that it’s far less relevant now. In 2008, when Apple (AAPL) launched the iTunes App Store, soon to be followed by the Android Market (now Google Play), such growth was important for two reasons. One: Smartphones running platform-specific apps were a new concept for mainstream consumers. And two: The starting point was zero.

That sounds obvious, and yet today we keep hearing how a service is growing faster than Facebook or Twitter did. So too with the app store. As All About Windows Phone says, “Windows Phone reached the 100,000 milestone faster than Android (24 months), but slower than iOS (16 months).”

The growth-rate comparison simply doesn’t matter: We’re four years past when it mattered. There are many more consumers buying smartphones now than there were in 2008. That’s evidenced by the Windows Phone market share; as noted above, it lost share, but in terms of sales, it actually rose from 2.5 to 2.7 million units for Microsoft in the first quarter. The whole market is rising and gaining users, so you can’t meaningfully compare app growth rates in 2012 to those in 2008.

It’s not over yet for Windows Phone: Here’s what to watch for. Clearly, Microsoft is in this for the long haul, and although smartphone sales have boomed over the past few years, only one-fifth of the world’s population owns a smartphone. So there’s time yet. Instead of apps, which are of course important, the maturity of Microsoft’s mobile platform and supporting ecosystem are more important factors to watch than the total number of apps available for Windows Phone.

Later this month, Microsoft will give a sneak peek at the next version of Windows Phone, code-named “Apollo.” And earlier this week at the E3 gaming conference, Microsoft announced SmartGlass, a new way to share Xbox media content with smartphones, tablets, and Windows 8 computers. Perhaps with these new developments, Microsoft will finally give more consumers an answer to the question, “Why should I buy a Windows Phone over Android or iOS?”

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Tofel is a writer for the GigaOm Network.

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