Microsoft’s Game Theory

Windows Phone Is Still Playing Catch-up

Windows_phone_lSmart bulbs are likely to be a hot holiday gift this year. Screw in one of these and you’re on your way to creating a connected home. Popular smart bulbs from companies like LIFX and Philips enable users to set specific moods via light — users just need to download the official apps. However, only iOS and Android users need apply; Windows Phone users have to check out what feels like the back-alley market to come into the light.

This week, Candy Crush Saga and Minecraft became available for Windows Phone. It’s a big step forward given the cult following of these games, but highlights how Windows Phone users might be being made to feel like second-class mobile citizens.

Candy Crush Saga, developed by King Digital Entertainment, has millions of active users and was the most downloaded app for iOS last year. It was originally released for smartphones more than two years ago, and its arrival this week for Windows Phone provides some sort of app gap measurement. Two years is a lifetime in the mobile world — the average replacement cycle for smartphone users in developed markets.

Minecraft, developed by Mojang, has become one of the most popular games of all time. It’s particularly popular among tweeners, but the lack of a Minecraft app for Windows Phone has left a generation of potential users shunning Microsoft’s mobile platform. Minecraft was originally released for Android and iOS more than three years ago, an even wider time crevice for Windows Phone users. Microsoft purchased Mojang earlier this year for $2.5 billion, which certainly helped to grease the gears of development for a Windows Phone version.

This holiday season has been a shoppers’ paradise. From Singles Day to Black Friday, Cyber Monday to Cyber Week to the 12 Days of Cyber Deals, there have been some incredible opportunities to pick up quality hardware at ludicrously low prices. Windows Phone-based deals have really stood out — shoppers could buy a Lumia 520 phone from AT&T for $40, for example. It’s SIM-locked, but could still be used as a bargain navigation device or a modern Zune replacement. Microsoft’s 12 Days of Deals retail initiative saw an unlocked BLU Win HD Windows Phone device selling for $129. On Cyber Monday, Microsoft offered the BLU Win JR four-inch Windows Phone device for just $49. That’s a deal.

Microsoft can probably buy some low-end market share as it slowly gains volume, which in turn might interest some developers. However, the chicken and egg problem will continue to haunt Microsoft. Its best hope now is to leapfrog competitors with Windows 10, but there will be little chance to gain traction if the same app gap exists even early on in the Windows 10 ecosystem. Engaged, high-end users who buy gadgets like LIFX light bulbs will expect their smartphones to back them up out of the box.

Dedicated Windows Phone users are eager to point out that Microsoft’s Marketplace now has more than 500,000 apps. However, that’s still less than half the volume available to users of iOS and Android devices, and in many cases the Windows Phone variants lack the full feature set enjoyed by rivals. It does, though, beg the question: how many apps does the average smartphone user really need? The answer is that they need the right apps with full functionality. Microsoft must negotiate its way to gaining support for the VIPs — the Very Important Programs — from smart-home hardware from connected thermostats to cable broadcaster widgets. The coming year offers a reboot to Microsoft, but the company will have to see the light early on.