Thursday, February 7, 2013

How Microsoft Can Save Windows Phone 8

Windows Phone is running a distant third. We know this and we know why.  Apps.  There aren't any and don't believe Microsoft when they talk about 46 of the top 50 apps are there.  When your friend starts playing SongPop or Ruzzle you find out those apps are not in the WP app store the fact that CNN is there is not really relevant.  It's a difficult problem to solve.  Platforms need apps to lure users.  Apps need developers to create them.  Developers need the platform to have a significant number of users to make it worth their time.  And that completes the circle.  But there is a way to break it and I think Microsoft has already been doing this.

Now I am not aware of Microsoft's plans or actions here so if they are already doing this, great.  If they aren't they need to start today!!

The basic idea is "fund and completely manage the development of all leading apps on competing platforms and, for a period of time, identify new popular titles and port those as well".

The main difference in my idea here is that MS needs to actually completely handle the port and support of the apps.  Simply providing the money for the port is not enough because you may be dealing with dev shops that don't have the experience needed or, more likely, don't  have the bandwidth.  But how would this work?  Here are some thoughts.

  • Microsoft could put contractors under NDA so they can share code and assets from the publisher
  • Microsoft would make the app free in the marketplace for a period of time.  The publisher didn't do the app in the first place so they aren't missing something they didn't have in the first place.
  • Microsoft would handle all reported bugs and issuing updates to the program.
  • The publisher obviously has control over whether the port is done -- it is their property.  Some publishers may have philosophical reasons why they don't want to support the platform.
  • The app would still be published under the publisher name.  To the outside world it would appear that the publisher did the port.
I don't know how much of this Microsoft is already doing but this is one approach that would help provide some of the missing apps for the platform.

Another Reason Windows Phone 8 Is A Winner

By all technical reviews Windows Phone 8 is simple, elegant, and beautiful.  And yet statistically speaking no one is carrying one.  There are many intertwined reasons for this such as no significant developer support and no significant retailer support.  Check out your local Best Buy and see what you think about the WP8 display, if there is one.

This is really a shame because by and large the bulk of the smartphone public out there doesn't really care about the specifics of their phone.  My proof of this is how many phones are out there still loaded with Gingerbread.  These people don't customize their dialiers or install replacement SMS apps.  They expect their phone to "just work" and they tolerate many of the Android devices because they are cheap.  Heck, many of them don't even know their phone is running Android.  It's just a phone and something that plays Temple Run or Angry Birds.

But Microsoft is well positioned to make a serious run at these people.  There are many great things about WP8 but I think there is one feature that really has the potential of being a game changer for the platform.

App Specific, Contextually Aware Voice Commands

The next frontier is voice.  Sure, we have Siri and Google Now and they are great first takes but voice recognition is getting good enough that we should be able to start really using our voice to casually use our phone.  In order to do this all the apps on the phone really need to be able to respond to my voice.  Apple and Google took one approach while Microsoft took a different path.

Siri and Google Now (and Samsung S-Voice for that matter) are server-side technologies in that they are essentially searches.  With Siri the voice recognition is done in the cloud and then the search is processed.  With Android 4.1 and later the recognition is done on the phone but it still leads to essentially a search.  In both case the results of this search can be customized and returned in intelligent cards such as sports scores or a quiz of a given fact.  There is some local integration such as asking the phone to navigate to a given point of interest but this still amounts to a simple search that the maps app simple responds to.  There is a better way in my opinion.

With Windows Phone 8 applications can specify verbs to which they will respond.  This is entirely controlled by the developer of the app, not Microsoft  This is a very powerful concept.  With this structure a user can voice control every app on her phone assuming those apps are enabled by the developers with voice actions.  To experience this power take a recent Android phone, bring up Google Now, and say 'tweet This is a tweet using my voice'.  What you'll get is a Google search because Google Now has no idea what to do with it.  With Windows Phone 8 it is possible today to install a Twitter client that has the voice verbs baked in and send your tweet entirely by voice.  Or bring up a book in a book reader. Or bring up the weather.  Or start the next level in that cool game.  Any app you have on your phone could be upgraded to easily support these voice verbs.

The best part is that the recognition is app specific with a very small dictionary.  This should, in practice, make the recognition very accurate.

Voice is the next frontier and Microsoft has a very compelling story for integrating voice into apps.  They should promote it.