Later today we’re expecting to see Apple’s Tim Cook unveil the next generation of the iPad – which is presumably why this morning Nokia thought it was, ummm, a good idea to announce a new tablet and some new phones that everyone will stop caring about in a few hours time.
Nokia and Microsoft have a huge problem. Windows as a mobile platform is failing. It’s market share is pitiful, and despite both companies being huge players, there doesn’t seem to be anything they can do to fix it.
The problem they have is in the user experience. In short, Windows phone doesn’t have enough apps. And the app economy is what matters in mobile these days. People will only buy into Windows phone over iPhone and Android if they think they can get all of the apps they want (and thus have a good user experience)… but developers are only going to make apps for the Windows platform if there are enough people with Windows phones, who will conceivably want to buy their app.
Right now – Windows is in an app recession. There aren’t enough users, or enough apps. By comparison, iPhone and Android are booming – both platforms have millions of users and thousands of developers making thousands of apps. It’s a self perpetuating cycle. I know that my next phone is going to be an iPhone or Android because I can be confident that all of the services I use every day – Facebook, Twitter, and indeed any new service that hasn’t yet been invented – will continue to support the two platforms on strength of numbers.
You may be wondering how iPhone and Android got ahead. I’d argue that it’s because they had first mover’s advantage. In other words, when the iPhone came along, most phones were clunky bricks with keypads – in fact, the first iPhone didn’t even run apps. But by the time Apple enabled developers to make apps and created the app store, the game-changing iPhone was already in the hands of millions of people, thirsty to buy apps for their phones. Android then managed to muscle in on this by providing a more affordable smartphone option, at a more accessible price point than the premium iPhone.
And whilst all of this was going on, Nokia was still hanging on to it’s dying Symbian operating system, which compared to the iPhone was a user experience nightmare, and Microsoft were presumably sat twiddling their thumbs, still worrying about desktop computers.
Eventually Nokia gave up on Symbian and chose to move over to the Windows platform. But why? At the time, it was reasoned by analysts, that they didn’t want to become just another “OEM” faceless hardware manufacturer for someone else’s software – by picking Windows, because the platform is much less popular, they could still be big players by working closely with Microsoft. (I wonder what they think now when looking at Samsung’s Android success?)
That was the plan, anyway. But nothing Nokia have done has yet quite made the impact they were hoping for. In fact – there were rumours a while back they were thinking of making another switch – this time to Android… but then Microsoft buying the phone division put a stop to that.
So now they’re stuck with the dilemma outlined above. How can they get more apps and users? How can they get from the cycle of despair (less apps, so less users, so less apps), to the virtuous cycle of users begetting apps begetting users?
The reason they haven’t completely given up yet is because of Microsoft’s financial clout. Last year there were reports that Microsoft was paying companies cold, hard cash to build apps for the Windows platform. Think of it like a stimulus package during a recession. This morning we heard how Instagram and Vine will both soon be coming to Windows.
Personally – even with this stimulus I’m sceptical that it will actually make an impact. I’ve worked in a couple of app start-ups in the past, and can’t help but wonder if – especially with smaller developers – once the Microsoft apps are built, will they just be forgotten? Will they really bother to keep pace with the iPhone and Android versions of the apps with new features and so on if the money taps are switched off?
And apparently things are so dire that Microsoft are repackaging mobile websites as ‘apps’. Will these potemkin apps that are merely a shell containing a website really fool anyone? Will this really be perceived as a user experience equivalent to the rich experiences a proper app can bring?
The problem is that you can’t fool users like this. The only way to make consumers and developers want to use your platform is to give them a good user experience – in this case give them the actual proper apps that they want. If you give someone a poor user experience, they won’t stick around.
Want proof of this? Then look no further than the actor James Corden – who you may remember starred in an advert for Windows Phone earlier this year:
As part of the promotion, Microsoft had clearly and wisely had it written into his contract that he was to use a Windows phone. You can see this by looking at his tweets:
…Yet clearly as soon as the contract was up he was straight back on the iPhone 5.
(In fact, a little Twitter investigation demonstrates that the switch was somewhere between March 16th and April 30th!)
So if you can’t even get your paid brand advocate to stick with your phone – then that really isn’t a good sign.
I’m not sure how Microsoft are going to break this cycle and get a foothold – but maybe this is the problem. If you were looking to buy a new phone, would you really risk it with a platform that’s so uncertain?
I guess you could say: “live by the app, die by the app”.