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Why Windows Phone Still Draws App Developers Despite Low Market Share


With tiny but growing market share, Windows Phone is still drawing some developers to the platform.


Mobile platforms in tech have a chicken-and-egg problem: If developers don't create apps to run on them, users will eschew the platforms; and developers won't waste their time and money building apps that have few potential customers.

Recently, we reported that mobile app developers consistently develop for Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) first, and only port their apps to Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) ecosystem afterward, even though Android boasts the highest market share. Even phenomenally successful apps like Instagram were able to sell to Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) before reaching a single Android user. (See: Developer Explains Why Mobile Start-Ups Put Apple First.)

How does this bode for Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) effort to court developers to make Windows Phone 8 a viable third platform? And where does this leave BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY)?

"Developing an app for BlackBerry today is a total waste of time and money. They're almost extinct in the phone market -- and without users to download apps and confidence that the platform has longevity, there's no value for developers," says Rohit Singal, CEO of Sourcebits, a mobile development shop. "The Windows apps we've done have been so far behind in downloads, as compared to Android and iOS, that 95% of the time we recommend against them for our clients."

And yet, some professional mobile developers are giving Windows Phone, with only 4.8% of US market share, a chance. We interviewed a few to find out why.

1. Microsoft's stack.

Microsoft's software stack already has millions of certified developers - 14 million by one estimate on Quora - who are accustomed to the platform and the Visual Studio IDE used to build programs. Microsoft's .NET languages are among the most lucrative and in-demand in IT.

In a survey by Visual Studio Magazine (which caters to software development professionals), 82% of readers said that the .NET framework was the best for job retention. The average base salary for female developers is $85,035, and $96,079 for men., the job-search site, shows that listings for .NET programmers are down slightly since 2009, but still make up 2.5% of all listings. In fact, it has enjoyed a surge in the past year. So there are a lot of developers out there who already have the tools and skills to build Windows desktop apps, and the transition to phone apps is an easy one.

"I think that's true iOS is obviously the big platform in mobile development, but the appealing part about Windows Phone, at least for me, is that it's coming from the Microsoft stack," says David Henry, a software developer at Adage Technologies in Chicago. "The platform is very familiar to me, and there is not much of a learning curve. Henry says that for a programmer accustomed to making Windows desktop, it's easy to use those same skills for phone apps.

Visual Studio, the integrated development environment, is only available on Windows machines. You can get a free license to try it out, but as with Apple, a commercial developer license costs money.

2. Good developer relations.

"Microsoft is not number one, so they try harder," says Patryk Bukowiecki, a multiplatform mobile game developer in Poland. "From my standpoint, I have some good relations with Microsoft offices, and the company in general, and I know that they will support me and my game and feature it in the recommended section."

"If you are an independent developer you don't have access to an iTunes marketing chief, you won't have a chance to talk to people at Apple who could spotlight your app, you just pray to Steve Jobs that you have a great product," he says.

Good in-person support is probably a bit of an understatement. Microsoft is so eager to get big-name apps onto its platform that it pays out up to $100,000 to get developers to port existing apps to Windows Phone.

3. Big fish in a small pond.

The developers who I spoke with were all eager to point out that they perceive Microsoft's services as better than the competition, but Windows Phone's biggest weakness for consumers - fewer apps - spells opportunity for developers.

"Windows Phone is an up elevator that's still on the ground floor. Have a great idea for an app? Chances are there are already 10 iOS and Android apps that do the same thing. But on the Windows Phone, there are still lots of apps that need to be written. Opportunities abound," says Jeff Prosise, co-founder of of Wintellect, a .NET consulting and education company. "There have been a lot of millionaires made on iOS and Android, and there will be millionaires made on the Windows Phone platform, too."

4. Covering all the bases.

Some software companies would develop for Windows Phone or BlackBerry to reach as many consumers as possible, but they don't because doing so could spread a small company thin as it attempts to support multiple platforms and devices.

"From the beginning in 2007, Endomondo knew we wanted to be the social player in the field of fitness tracking and that required us to support many operating systems rather than making Endomondo a closed party for people with a specific phone," says Mette Lykke, CEO and co-founder of Endomondo, a fitness app. "That would put a ceiling on the size of our community from the beginning. For this reason we've developed apps for eight different mobile operating systems. Even though most downloads are on Android and iOS, Endomondo has some very loyal users for both BlackBerry and Windows Phone, and it makes good sense for us to still support those platforms."

But such a strategy could become cumbersome. Inevitably, some companies cut corners on the less popular platforms.

"In our case we cover as many platforms as we can (including Windows Phone 8, BlackBerry 10, FireFox OS, etc.). Granted, to achieve this, we take the 
lowest common denominator. So the user experience on those platforms its not
 on par with our versions for iOS and Android," says Joanan Hernandez, founder of Mollejuo, which makes travel guide apps. "Of course, to improve this user experience on WP8, BB10, more development is needed, thus the ROI has to be taken into consideration. Sometimes, though, even if you have the resources and the will to cover these alienated platforms, the technical background is not there."

Developers and marketers should at least pause before supporting a whole different platform. The costs of development extend beyond the initial launch.

"Each platform has different characteristics that might lend themselves to different use cases or applications, or even be preferable for practical reasons like cost of maintenance and update," says Steve Ellis, CEO of Metia, a digital agency. "Bear in mind that many publishers or corporates are now struggling to sustain families of apps created in a first flush of enthusiasm."

5. Overseas users.

I rarely see Windows Phones in the wild; I can recall only two occasions that I saw someone using them. But outside of the US, they are much more common. There are more Windows Phones than iPhones in India, and in Germany, Microsoft trails Apple by one percentage point of market share. In Italy, it beats iOS with a substantial 16.1% market share. In Europe (Nokia's (NYSE:NOK) home turf), Windows Phone has more than 10% market share. Clients in these countries can't ignore it.

"While Android and iOS are really popular with both our customers and their users, we have found that BlackBerry and even Symbian still has a substantial user base for some of our clients. This is particularly true for our customers in developing nations," says Allan Bennetto, founder of JMango, an international mobile development firm. "BlackBerry is still pretty popular, and in one of our apps, we've found a substantial number of users coming from BlackBerry World."

6. Cross-platform advantages.

Making apps for native mobile platforms is akin to creating a television show in several languages. Each platform requires at least a team of experts. Writing an iPhone app in Objective-C, the once obscure programming language that iOS applications are written in, makes it hard to port to any other platform.

But there is another way. Some devs use HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to write Web apps and then port them to several different devices. This allows one set of developers to write for every platform and only make minor tweaks to the user interface to fit the operating system's design language.

The idea of developing HTML5 apps that can run on any device, rather than native code, was discredited after Facebook ditched its efforts to keep its codebase in HTML. Last year, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook's biggest mistake was betting too much on HTML5. It has since implemented native code for the various platforms, and it has worked well for the company.

Michael Mullany, CEO of Sencha, a platform for native HTML5 development, disagrees. He says that Facebook simply went about it the wrong way.

"Facebook was not really using HTML5 application development platforms, not creating a server side, and the end product wasn't designed properly," he says. "We rebuilt their scrolling feed at 50 frames per second with techniques and technology we developed at Sencha."

To prove that Facebook could have done better, Sencha rebuilt its own Facebook clone that the company says works much faster than the social network's former official app. Mullany also says that HTML5 eliminates the need to install frequent updates.

Adobe (NASDAQ:ADBE) produces Phonegap, a tool that allows developers to easily port an HTML5 app into a native app for any platform, even the nearly extinct Symbian operating system and incipient challengers like Mozilla's Firefox OS.

BlackBerry also encourages HTML5 development, which makes sense since the platform is clearly on its way out in most countries. HTML5 could also prime the pump and make the jump to Windows Phone and other platforms less of a burden, especially for small companies.

If more developers do so, it could make Windows Phones more attractive for consumers.

Twitter: @vincent_trivett

No positions in stocks mentioned.
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