There Are Six Major Problems with Windows Phone, and Apps Isn’t One of Them

I keep running into this same sentence, over and over again “Windows Phone lacks apps”. Every single review of a Lumia for example ends with the same foregone conclusion: “it’s a great phone but there are no apps”. I usually shake my head at this statement, but the recent talks about Nokia blaming Microsoft and the lack of apps have me worried.

If anyone — at Nokia, or elsewhere — thinks that this is the culprit behind Windows Phone’s failure to gain market traction, then they’re clearly disillusioned. It’s not as if the release of Instagram will be the magical panacea to the platform’s issues.

While the app problem is partly true, it is in no way, shape or form, the sole reason why Windows Phone isn’t gaining traction. As a matter of fact, you will likely find 80-90% of the same or equivalent apps that you are used to on Android or iOS, and the community is very active — and creative — in trying to fill the remaining gap, so the app problem is only minor, if anything.

Windows Phone’s issues run way deeper than that. The apps are a symptom of the problem, an outward expression of it, if you will, but they are not the underlying cause. And while I don’t claim to be an expert on mobile phone markets and strategies, there are six problems I can see with Windows Phone that I will explain below.

Disclaimer: Let’s get this out of the way first. I’m biased, a lot. I take mobile technology to heart, and that’s why I love and hate companies passionately. I was a Symbian fan for several years. I loved Nokia’s hardware and software, and I invested a lot of my free time to help run Symbian-Guru. However, I got sour a couple of years ago and switched to Android. I don’t regret the decision and I’m now the editor of Android.Appstorm. I have used Windows Phone, and while I think it isn’t a good first choice platform for me, I enjoyed the experience and would consider it for my second device. I was also one of the few people to applaud the Windows Phone decision in Feb 2011 — I wasn’t wrong there, I just had a better vision of that deal than both Nokia and Microsoft combined. It’s a shame, but I get the feeling that they still don’t see it now. “Third”, seriously, who wants to be third? But I digress. The point is that although I have a special place in my heart for Nokia and I really want them to do well, I am very vocally critical of them.

The first clue that should help you understand why apps aren’t the only problem with Windows Phone is that apps (or lack thereof) are discovered after you buy a phone. There are people who will do their research to find whether an app is available for the platform they are switching to, but these are a minority. For everyone else, the purchase is made irrespective of the number or availability of apps. So why isn’t Windows Phone selling well to begin with, if apps don’t factor in?

The Operator Problem

With the mobile market being what it is, a huge portion of worldwide phone sales relies on contracts and operator support. And you don’t have to look very hard to see Windows Phone’s problem with operators: they are not ordering Windows Phone devices, they are not pushing or marketing them correctly — anyone remember AT&T’s decision to launch the Lumia 900 on Easter Sunday of all days? — and they are not training their store clerks to understand or help customers who want them.

Put these three together and you can find countless online stories of people who visited operator retail stores to check or buy Lumia devices but were faced with either blank stares at the mention of a particular model, complete ignorance of the product and its availability, or the dreaded “we don’t have any unit available for sale or demo”, along with some very active persuasion from the store clerk or manager to sway their decision into buying an iPhone or an Android device instead.

You’d have to be really persistent and really knowledgable to get an operator to sell you a Windows Phone device. But if you were an average customer, with no particular preference, you’d have almost zero chance of walking out of a retail store — even that of the most “exclusive” and “trusted” partners — with a Windows Phone device.

The Platform Positioning Problem

Windows Phone is a schizophrenic platform and I still have trouble understanding who it is aimed at, because none of it makes sense.

But let me back up first. Windows Phone is an enjoyable OS. It’s simple to use for basic tasks, beautiful to look at, consistent throughout default and third-party apps. It’s great for the average user who doesn’t demand a lot from his mobile device or doesn’t have a lot of previous experience with smartphones. Except, most things don’t work out of the box. Background updates were relayed to every 30 minutes on WiFi when the screen was off in WP7. The option to keep WiFi on was added in WP8, but the user has to manually enable it [Note: I’m told this has changed recently on a few devices, the option is enabled by default, but the point remains that for a long time, it either was unavailable or hidden and deactivated by default]. Notifications are horridly managed, with a simple toast that disappears into thin ether after a few seconds, unless you manually add a live tile on your homescreen.

Basically, after buying a Windows Phone device, you have to go and add live tiles so you can see notifications after they disappear, and toggle the switch to keep WiFi on when the screen is off. Otherwise, there’s no way to see your new notifications when you unlock your phone after leaving it in your pocket for an hour or so, and, until very recently, if you were in a weak-reception area, in offline mode, or didn’t have 3G, you’d only get notified once every 30 minutes of your Whatsapp or IM messages. Compare this with the way Android and iOS work, out of the box, no toggles, no settings necessary, and you see why users have been historically frustrated with Windows Phone. Enough to make store clerks not know how to help customers, enough to cause high returns on Windows Phone devices, and enough to give the platform a bad rep.

If, however, Windows Phone was aimed at the power user, then things make even less sense. Limitation upon limitation have plagued the platform. Podcast apps still have a dozen issues, Twitter apps took years to become usable, Whatsapp only recently made a huge deal about updating the app to make it work properly… Things are improving, surely, and Windows Phone might be taking less time to do so than iOS or Android, but the problem is that it launched after them, meaning that even though it evolved faster on a parallel scale, it already had a few years to catch up on from the get-go. Microsoft hasn’t managed to iterate fast enough, and we keep hearing promises of Mango, and WP8, and GDR2 and Blue, to fix problems. Meanwhile, now, Windows Phone is still behind on features.

Put these two together, and Windows Phone isn’t for the average user, nor is it for the power-user, it is made to satisfy an idyllic section of the population who is knowledgeable enough to change a few settings but who doesn’t have extremely high expectations from their smartphone. It could have been perfect for my mother or my non-techie friend, except there is no way on earth that I would recommend it knowing everything they’d have to do to get things to work like they do out of the box on Android or iOS.

The Pricing and Halo Effect Problem

Microsoft made a great choice by limiting the minimum specs to run Windows Phone. This requirement means that even if you buy a cheap Windows Phone device, you will get an almost identical experience to the high-end devices. Compared to the way the iPhone is inexistent on cheap hardware, and Android is mostly a mess on it, Windows Phone had a lot of potential to take the mid-range markets by storm.

Except that has only happened to a limited capacity in certain countries — like the Lumia 520 in India — and not nearly enough to make any impact on the global scale. Why?

Because, until now, Windows Phone has lacked the Halo effect. I call “Halo effect” or “Halo device” the high-end smartphone you see everywhere, in ads, in people’s hands, in stores, etc. It’s the expensive status phone, the one phone you would buy if you had the money, and the one phone you’re proud to show off to your friends if you own it. It’s the one everyone knows by name, despite their complete lack of other technology know-how. The Nokia N95 and E71 were halo devices, the iPhone was a halo device, Android has had the S3, S4, and Note II.

However, the influence of the halo device far outshines its own sales, spreading across the whole line of devices it derives from. Just like the N95 boosted the N-series and the E71 boosted the E-series, the iPhone 4 made people buy the iPhone 3GS or the iPod Touch or even a Macbook, the S3 made countless people buy the horrible Galaxy Aces and Duos and Pockets… The halo device is known as such because, by its mere existence, the whole brand gains a few points in everyone’s eyes and uses it to drive the success of the rest of its line.

Unfortunately, there is no halo device on Windows Phone. The Lumia 1020 might be the first tangible step in that regard, but we’re still months away from knowing if it will achieve halo status or not. In the meantime, Windows Phone doesn’t have a true flagship that the average user knows about and says “that Lumia xxx is super cool, but I can’t afford it, so I got the Lumia yyy”. And the mid-range Windows Phone devices are suffering because of it.

The Customer Problem

This point pertains a bit to the previous three, but expands on them.

The average consumer either isn’t aware of Windows Phone (because of the lack of a halo device), has been turned off it by the sale clerk at his operator, or somehow managed to get a Windows Phone 7 device and was confused by the platform and the way notifications and background processes work, so he doesn’t want to take another chance on Windows Phone 8.

The high-end user, the one looking for the latest and greatest, is aware of Windows Phone, ready to shell hard-earned cash, but probably can’t find Windows Phone devices at his operator of choice. His main problem, however, is that since he’s always on the bleeding edge, he has either had an iPhone since 2008 or an Android device since 2010. He owns apps, games, accessories. He has invested money and time in his platform of choice, and he knows exactly the price to pay if he were to make his shift to Windows Phone now — or even a few months or a year ago. He also knows what he’ll be letting go of: all the proprietary Apple or Google services, all the apps (oh look, I mentioned apps once!) he won’t find, all the functions he’s used to that Windows Phone still lacks… When you come down to it, he’s even a harder customer to convince than the average user.

The Google Problem

It’s hard to ignore Google these days. The giant has a portfolio of apps and services that almost everyone uses, on a personal or a professional level: Search, Gmail, Google Now, Chrome, Analytics, Adsense, Drive, YouTube, Maps, Calendar, Google+… Sure, some are more ubiquitous than others, but as a whole, they are impossible to ignore. You can definitely find a few users who live in the Microsoft ecosystem (Outlook, Bing, Skydrive, etc) but they will always be a minority compared to those who use Google’s.

So when Google decides to completely ignore your existence, as a platform, you know there’s trouble ahead. First, there’s the break of ActiveSync support the fact that Google has made zero effort to release or update any of their apps to the Marketplace beyond Google Search in 2012. Then you have Google’s event last week, introducing the Chromecast and claiming it to be “cross-platform” with only iOS and Android apps.

Clearly, Windows Phone doesn’t exist or matter in Google’s eyes. iOS is large enough that they can’t ignore its presence, despite the fact that by releasing all of their services and apps for it, they are strengthening their own competitor and not taking the advantage of keeping services exclusive to their own Android platform. However, Windows Phone? Nada. Critters.

If you use any Google service, you know you have to go to third-party developers for your apps if available, you’ll struggle to find any significant support in APIs — think Play Games, Google+, Chromecast, etc — and most of the cool new features will come to you late. Very, very late.

The Microsoft vs Nokia Problem

Here’s where it gets ugly. Although partners, there is a huge discordance between Nokia and Microsoft, whether from the companies perspectives or from the consumer’s perspective.

I don’t know anything about what happens behind the closed doors of either company, so I won’t go into details. However, what trickles down to us is Microsoft’s desire to get more exclusive Windows Phone partners — like HTC — and Nokia’s frustration with the lack of fast updates and iterations on Microsoft’s end. Sometimes, the two work together to bypass some of Windows Phone’s limitations, as proven by the Lumia 1020’s support for a large camera sensor. But most times, you can feel a tension between the two, a love/hate relationship of sorts.

And you can understand Nokia’s frustration. After all, this is the company that had GPS navigation with 3G and WiFi and an accelerometer in 2007 with the N95. It had a Xenon flash and a 41 MegaPixel camera in 2012 with the Pureview 808. It has always been leaps ahead of others on the hardware front, and it needs the software to keep up with it. But when the software puts you in a cage, when your creativity and possibilities are limited by the OS that you ship your hardware on, there is a never-ending battle between what you know you can do and what you are allowed to do.

On the consumer front, the problem is with the discordant loyalty between the Nokia and the Microsoft brands. I have said it once and I will say it again: If Nokia had gone with Android or Meego on February 2011, almost none of the Nokia fans would have given Windows Phone a second look. And that’s the problem. Nokia fans are loyal to the Nokia brand, regardless of the OS. They love the hardware more than anything else, they love what the company stands for, and they are ready to follow them anywhere they go.

Windows Phone, to them, is a part of the package. You marry Nokia, you get Windows Phone and Microsoft as the in-laws. Sure, you’ll tolerate and accept them at first, you’ll learn to like them and make excuses for them later, you might even end up loving them, but your spouse, your main love, that’s Nokia.

Nokia knows that. Microsoft knows that. Most of the Windows Phone users and developers have followed Nokia into it. And even though the loyalty to Nokia as a brand was quite high, it wasn’t enough to keep everyone from the glorious Symbian days around. Many picked Android, iOS, or even moved to Meego and are looking at Jolla for their future devices. The ones who stayed with Nokia and Windows Phone did so out of loyalty for the company, they weren’t asked for their opinion about alternative OSes, they took the hand they were dealt and they’re making the best of it. How long that lasts, and whether or not it develops from tolerance to love, is subjective to each person. There’s a huge gamble for Windows Phone there, because if Nokia ever moves on, it might take the few millions it brought along with it, and where would that leave the platform? Practically nowhere.

If You Think Instagram is Windows Phone’s Biggest Problem, You’re Clearly Disillusioned

I said it in the intro, but it’s worth repeating again: apps are the symptom of a bigger problem on the Windows Phone front. Whatever Nokia’s or Microsoft’s own vision of Windows Phone was when the platform started, something isn’t working. I keep telling Nokia fans on Twitter and in private conversations that yes, Windows Phone is a nice platform, with a lot of potential, but it is clearly not gaining the momentum it should, and not living up to its expectations.

It’s nowhere near my own expectations when I proclaimed that Nokia + Windows Phone = Convergence without compromise. It delivered most of what I was expecting, but it created a brand new category of compromises that I hadn’t anticipated at all. And I am not alone. People aren’t buying Windows Phone devices in droves. Full Stop.

That something, when you think about it, is a mix of bad timing, cyclical delays, a total ignorance of the user’s requirements when the platform launched and a lack of any vision or specific target consumer. Apps weren’t a problem then because any new platform starts with a zeroed out portfolio.

Add a few years, and you have Google ignoring the OS, tensions between Nokia and Microsoft, operators not bothering, and yes, eventually — as a consequence — developers ignoring it or relegating it to the third degree. That’s the outward symptom. The problem, as I have explained, runs much deeper. After all, if Instagram could solve Windows Phone’s woes, you’d think Microsoft would have moved mountains by now to get the app on its platform.

But to end this article on a positive note, we now have the Lumia 1020. What might potentially become the Halo device for Windows Phone has just arrived. Could it reverse the trend with the OS and fix some of its problems to a point where we see the symptoms improving, and app developers picking it again?

Note: This post has been jointly posted on The Mobile Fanatics with the permission of the author.