Perhaps tiring of its third-place position in what many consider a two-horse race, it has been reported Microsoft is considering modifying the Windows Phone 8 mobile platform to run Android apps.
Windows Phone, while offering a unique user experience among mobile competitors, continues to dramatically lag behind both Android and Apple’s iOS in both market share and available apps. As of this writing, Windows Phone holds just 4 percent of the mobile phone market, which barely registers against Apple’s 18 percent share, much less Android’s dominant 77 percent stake.
Interestingly, Windows Phone sales showed a 104 percent boost from Q3 to Q4 2013 – mostly on the coattails of the latest line of Nokia smartphones – but gained no additional market share during that period.
According to the rumor, upcoming Windows Phone devices would run both native apps, as well as adapted versions of software from Android’s massive library, which would expand the platform well beyond its current capabilities.
While an exponential growth of available apps seems like it might draw more interest from consumers, there remains a very real chance the opposite may occur. A watered-down, less native user experience could drive both developers and customers away from a brand already struggling to stay afloat in crowded waters.
What Will Become of the “Windows Phone App?”
Whereas iOS and Android apps tend to have a more individual look and feel, native Windows Phone apps are treated as extensions of the parent operating system rather than independent programs. Through standardized fonts, layouts and commands, even heavily-branded apps like Facebook or Yelp are seamlessly connected to the Windows Phone experience.
In many cases (see the WP8 Facebook, Yelp, and Bank of America apps for examples), this design integration works beautifully. They offer usability that’s instantly familiar to fans of Windows Phone, while still maintaining brand integrity.
In apps that don’t integrate well, creative and loyal Windows Phone developers have created a slew of functional, if not superior, alternatives worthy of a trial.
Should the rumor come to fruition, a move toward a hybrid app platform would likely begin a slow, but steady demise of the native Windows Phone app. Considering the massive install base and more developer-friendly, open-source framework of Android, it’s highly unlikely programmers would devote resources to building apps exclusive to Windows Phone.
Not only would it make little sense for new developers to build software for the fledgling platform, but it would also push existing Windows Phone app developers away, since there would be a lack of incentive to remain myopic as the platform becomes a hybrid.
Remember the Blackberry
To paraphrase George Santayana, smartphone companies that don’t recall the past are condemned to repeat it.
Just last year, the once-mighty Blackberry made what many consider a “last-ditch” effort to compete in the smartphone arena it invented. In an attempt to rebrand the Blackberry as a more personal, versatile product through its technically-sound, but ultimately flat Z10 device, the company allowed its BB10 operating system to run Android apps through an indirect process called “repackaging.”
While a relatively simple process, this repackaging seemingly gave users the impression the beloved Blackberry had become little more than a slick façade, with the ability to emulate a rival platform, rather than creating new, engaging experiences of its own.
Though a novel idea, ultimately the revamped OS was too far removed from the traditional Blackberry experience for loyalists, most of whom had long-abandoned the brand for iPhones or Android devices. Few people gave the new hardware and platform a chance to grow, and it quickly became an afterthought, despite its potential.
Much like the Z10 was to the traditional Blackberry, Windows Phone has a dramatically different look and feel when compared to the “icon grid” layout of iPhone and Android devices. This has already alienated the device from potential buyers, most of whom want a familiar, easily-learned experience.
Adding Android apps to a fundamentally different operating system may only further the confusion from buyers on the fence about adopting a new device.
Are Apps Really That Important to Consumers?
Both iOS and Android now boast more than 1 million individual apps in their respective marketplaces, dwarfing Windows Phone’s 200,000+ tally, as of January 2014.
Yet globally, the average number of apps used by smartphone customers is a mere 25, of which an average of just 5.6 are paid. Windows Phone’s marketplace may have just a fraction of the apps available as its competitors, but only a minute percentage of any app ecosystem is being used, raising questions as to why this is such a sticking point for customers.
In the end, variety and quantity appears to be more appealing than the apps themselves. Still, this seems to be enough of a reason for prospective buyers to steer clear of Microsoft’s offering. Analysts and salesmen alike continue to cite Windows Phone’s “minimal” app ecosystem as the primary driver behind customer apathy.
Though this information has yet to grow beyond pure speculation, it raises some significant concerns about the long-term viability of Windows Phone. When the platform first launched, it was marketed as a cleaner, simpler alternative for people who didn’t want to be bogged down by unnecessary activities on their phones.
While this marketing, alongside a strikingly different look and feel, helped to establish Windows Phone as a unique mobile entity, it also may have alienated a growing population of users who wanted their smartphones to serve as miniature computers, capable of doing more and more with each new device.
Though the Windows Phone is more than capable of performing such tasks, having just 20 percent of the app offerings as its competition likely deterred smartphone power users.
This potential 11th hour attempt to populate its app ecosystem will do little more than dilute the Windows Phone experience for the 4 percent market share it currently holds.
Those who want Android apps will find them on Android phones. And those who want Windows Phone apps likely won’t find them on Windows Phones, should this rumor become reality. Before long, this race actually will only contain two horses, after all.
By Brad Bortone