Take a look on the inside
IF THE smartphone market was a marathon then it’s clear Apple is in the lead. Last week its chief executive Tim Cook announced that the App Store hit the 700,000 mark and Tuesday saw the same claim from Google for the number of apps in the Android Store.
This didn’t stop Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer from striding out confidently on stage at the Build developer conference on Tuesday for his keynote to declare that the launch of Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 was the third-biggest event in the company’s history (after the IBM PC in 1980 and Windows 95).
“We’re as enthused as we were at any moment in the company’s history; it’s a real step into the mobile world,” says Ballmer. By mobile he means everything – tablets, tablet/PC hybrids and smartphones – because Microsoft’s power play is allowing developers to build one app that works across all Windows 8 devices with minor tweaking.
By all accounts Windows 8 is doing well so far: four million Windows 8 upgrades were purchased in the first weekend and Dixons reported that laptop sales were 20 per cent ahead of forecast as a direct result. The translation to mobile device sales on the back of the Surface launch and new range of smartphones will be more interesting.
Despite the media attention surrounding the launch of the Surface tablet, Ballmer is keen to point out that the smartphone is a very important target for Microsoft. For the past few years of Windows 8 development the Windows Phone 8 has been “the magnetic north” of the new operating system, driving its look and usability, he said.
Whether you consider Microsoft to be a late starter or, perhaps more accurately, a restarter, in the app space, it does have a unique advantage. There are 670 million copies of Windows 7 installed and in use around the world, which makes a potential market of 670 million users for Windows 8 app creators. Add to that the 400 million sales forecast for new Windows 8 devices and it sounds rather exciting.
“This is an unprecedented market. Go out and build applications,” yells Ballmer. But why would app developers move from the mammoth app marketplaces of Android and Apple’s iOS with their steady supply of customers and an established revenue model?
“Developers don’t have to go learning a bunch of new languages. They can start writing apps for Windows 8 today,” says Tim O’Brien, general manager for developer platform evangelism at Microsoft. “It’s a truly global opportunity with 231 markets, over 100 languages and payment in 60 currencies. I’m not sure I would ignore that if I was a developer – even if I was making apps for iOS,” he adds, without cracking a smile.
The only snag in Microsoft’s forward momentum is getting all of these potential apps to the consumer. Windows Store is now open for business but the shelves are rather bare, which is a rather large snag. The Windows 8 SDK that is needed to create apps for the new operating system was only released days before the actual Windows 8 devices are due to appear in shops.
However, given that the Windows operating system is vast and that Microsoft is now making the OS accessible, many are hoping that Windows 8 will offer a credible alternative to Android and iOS.
It has a few tricks up its sleeve: for example the onscreen “tiles” that display real-time information without the user having to click into the app on their laptop or smartphone. Android has a real-time widget capability but Microsoft says its live tiles go deep into applications to extract more valuable information.
Another area that can draw in developers and consumers alike is mobile gaming. This is where Microsoft can excel, especially given the Xbox integration: Windows 8 mobile users can control their Xbox 360 through a smartphone or tablet. There’s also a nice bit of hardware integration where the Xbox controller can be plugged in to a Windows 8 tablet for a precision gaming experience.
While it’s not clear how big a slice Microsoft can steal of the smartphone app market, the message to Apple and Android is clear: game on.