Should You Publish Your App on the Windows Phone Marketplace?

windowsphonemarketplace

The Windows Marketplace has been heavily pushed by Microsoft in the past year as part of a broader attempt to bring developers to create apps for their handsets. But with Google Play and the App Store dominant in the West and alternative app stores regularly supporting either Android or iOS, is it worth the time to develop an app specifically for Windows Phone or is, as a recent Pocket Gamer panel suggested, developing for a third platform a bridge too far? In this piece, we investigate the merits or otherwise of the Windows Marketplace to see whether it is worth investing your time and money in

Executive Summary

 The Windows Marketplace is a growing opportunity for developers but one that is still yet to reach maturity. With a growing shipping share in key territories, the arrival of big name social apps on the platform and some interesting marketing initiatives such as App Social to call upon, the marketplace appears to be becoming a more viable option for developers. But for those ill equipped to port, who rely on a strong ASO strategy or are reliant on tablets to succeed, it is unlikely to be the right time for you to enter the Windows Phone marketplace.

This piece is split into the following sections:

Market Overview

The major reason why you should consider Windows Phone as an option to develop for is the clear growth in the numbers of people using the OS and the likelihood of continued growth in the forthcoming quarters.

This is most ably demonstrated by figures for handset shipments since the first of the Lumia range launched in 2011. When studying the figures, there is clear evidence that the launch of Windows Phone 8 in the last quarter of 2012 has had a significant impact on shipments, nearly trebling numbers year on year from the 2.9m in Q3 2012 to 8.8m in Q3 2013.  In total, over 42 million Windows Phone handsets have been shipped according to Kantar World Panel figures since 2011 meaning, as a market it is now starting to gain  traction amongst consumers.

Global Windows Phone Handset Shipments (millions)

Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 14.46.50

Source: Kantar World Panel

Importantly, those figures are translating into a market share that suggests consumers are beginning to be enticed by the Nokia proposition.  In the UK, Windows Phone handsets have taken 10% of the shipping market with Germany seeing a similar figure of 8.8%. Most interestingly of all, the company also recorded a 5% share in the U.S.; a clear indicator that for the first time ever Nokia is beginning to gain credibility within the all important North American market.

In further good news for the platform, app numbers are low enough to suggest there is a competitive advantage to moving onto Windows now. While Microsoft are aiming for parity with Google Play and iOS within a year, their current app figures stand closer to Amazon than their illustrious rivals at 160,000 apps on the store.

For the most part, this has been a cause for concern due to Microsoft’s inability to attract big name apps to their platform. But with the arrival of Vine, Waze and Instagram Beta as well as Facebook Messenger, the majority of social networks that form a critical part of a Western user’s social tapestry are now available. That should have a two fold effect on the market as a whole by assuaging the concerns of users considering acquiring a handset and for developers looking for organic means to share their apps.

Instagram on Windows Phone

Furthermore, Microsoft have made further strides to help developers bring their apps and ideas for apps to the platform. In terms of middleware, high profile support for Unity since July 2013 has boosted game numbers on the platform by 1000. As for alternative software, the intriguing Project Siena will be allowing non-developers to create Windows Phone apps without coding knowledge. Such a move could have negative results on overall quality of apps on the store of course (what with the possibility of anyone developing apps for the platform), but it bodes well as a sign that Microsoft are serious about growing the viability of their store.

Ultimately, looking at the Windows Marketplace from a general perspective produces a positive impression. There are a decent number of handsets to target, there is clear growth in user numbers while the app landscape manages to balance a handy lack of competitiveness with growing credibility afforded to it by big brands.

Developing Your App For The Windows Marketplace

The major difference between the Windows Marketplace and other stores is Microsoft’s decision to use the C# programming language. Although it is a variant of C++, the coding language used on iOS, the vagaries of C# mean that you will, ultimately, have to set about porting your app to make it suitable for the platform.  Fortunately, the overall perception of developing for Windows Phone is good so that challenge shouldn’t faze well equipped teams.

When it comes to ensuring the stability of apps on the OS, the lack of handset diversity is definitely an advantage. While Windows Phone supports a wider set of screen sizes and technical specifications than iOS, in comparison to the Google Play store the Lumia range offers developers a small and manageable testing sample to work with. While the announcement of the Nokia X may seem a point of concern for developers, it is important to note that it has a separate app store and therefore does not directly affect the Windows Phone Marketplace.

A particular string in the bow of Windows Phone in the testing stakes is that Microsoft allow you to create Beta versions of your apps and distribute them to selected lists of testers via the store. While many developers will already be using a service to distribute testing versions of their apps, this is definitely a handy freebie for new and experienced developers alike which will help to close the porting gap. It’s a feature that other stores are only now beginning to catch up with, as evidenced by Apple’s recent acquisition of Testflight, so it is to Microsoft’s credit that it had the necessary foresight on this issue.

However there are two important problems facing developers moving to Windows Marketplace. The first is that the Windows Phone OS was divided into 7.8 and 8 at the tail end of 2012 following the release of the newest Nokia Lumias as a change in the kernel requirements in the devices created a two tier “old” vs “new” battle. While that problem should resolve itself relatively soon due the decision to phase out 7.8 in 2014, it is at least worth bearing in mind that the approximately 15 million devices shipped prior to Q4 2012 will be running the older version of the OS.

Estimated Windows Phone 7.8 and Windows Phone 8 handset shipment numbers (millions)

Bar chart Windows Phone Shipments

Source: Kantar World Panel

Second, and much more significant a problem, Windows Phone OS is not currently optimised for tablet developers. Microsoft’s decision to support their Surface tablet range with Windows RT, a stripped down version of the full Windows 8 desktop experience, means that there is little for tablet developers to latch onto on the platform currently. While that situation is likely to change somewhat since the announcement at Microsoft’s Build Conference this year that apps for Windows Phone will soon be compatible for RT and Windows 8 PCs, it is likely to take another year or so before the market for tablet apps opens up.

Completing Your Store Listing

In terms of getting your app listed, Microsoft run a content approval process which will be broadly familiar to anyone who has uploaded an app to either the Amazon or iOS stores. Featuring a typical run down of don’ts regarding sex, hate messages etc, there is going to be little in terms of a nasty surprises for anyone used to the process of submission and approval found on other platforms.

Where surprises perhaps become a little bit less welcome is in the app store assets section, which is relatively backwards in comparison to other stores. For a developer listing an app on the store, the following assets may be uploaded

  • Eight screenshots
  • App name (recommended length of 11-15 characters to avoid truncation)
  • App Icon
  • An App Description, limited to 2000 characters
  • Five Keywords or phrases to help guide search

Ultimately, this compares unfavourably with pretty much every other major platform. While the eight screenshots are a welcome addition to people seeking to demonstrate app features more successfully, the lack of video is clearly a disappointment (particularly as Apple is finally making moves in this direction).

More concerning though is the keyword limit. With only 5 words or phrases to call upon, you have little in terms of flexibility for long tail keyword strategies to exploit. While many developers have made a success of apps on Google Play without keywords at all, the success of the keyword optimisation industry on the App Store suggests that flexibility is welcomed by developers and is somewhat sorely missed here.

Ultimately, when combined to the limited length app description and app name, Windows Phone offers a functional but inflexible set of options to an ASO professional.

Marketing And Promotion

The Windows Marketplace lacks the Swiss army knife marketing tool kit that can be found on the Amazon store but it does boast a number of schemes that should help developers to market their apps more successfully.

One of the big strengths are the clear guidelines on featuring that Microsoft provides. Apps can be featured in three ways (an all encompassing “panorama” feature, as a “featured app” or part of a “featured list”) and practical tips are available, allowing marketers to target their apps for features more successfully.

On top of that are two initiatives from Microsoft that stand out as unique in comparison to their rivals. The Next App Star contest is an interesting way of encouraging developers who may not have significant marketing budgets to grasp the limelight, by giving victors from all backgrounds the opportunity for prominent promotion.

Perhaps most interestingly of all is App Social, a new WP app that is currently in beta. It allows users to curate lists of apps and recommend favourites to their friends, suggesting that the marketplace curators are making clear steps to integrating social and organic discovery into the bloodstream of the OS. This will be welcome news for marketers in particular and could help to drive the cost of acquisition down on the platform in the long run (provided it succeeds of course).

There are problems with information surrounding the eco-system that may hamper developers somewhat. There is, for example, a lack of information on best ASO practices on the platform due to the relatively muted broader interest in the platform from developers and marketers. There are also few providers of mobile advertising really focusing on the platform. Aside from adduplex, a company who runs a mobile advertising cross promotion network on the platform, the Windows Marketplace remains a comparative wilderness for specialist third party app marketing services.  

But, in general, it seems that the Windows Marketplace is making steps in the right directions when it comes to marketing and promotion.

Monetisation

In what can probably be considered good news for Microsoft, what little discussion there is about the effectiveness of monetisation on the Windows Marketplace suggests that there are opportunities for developers of all varieties.

For free to play game developers, statistics from EEDAR reported on WP Central suggested that the marketplace draws in a higher percentage of “Whales” than other platforms as well as seeing fewer gamers unwilling to stump up for apps. At the same time, Evernote reported in 2013 that it saw higher monetisation per user on Windows Phone than on Android for their productivity tool – suggesting that monetisation on the platform is in reach for both game developers and service providers.

Admittedly, this might be simply a question of sample size. When drawing from a relatively small pool of handset owners who are predominantly in the West, it is of course likely that Android’s significant audience of low grade users is going to drag it below the Windows Marketplace.

Nonetheless, the nature of the Windows Phone handsets and their natural audience may well tend towards effective monetisation. The successful integration of Office into the handset range as well as the integration of features such as high quality cameras makes the platform more attractive to those with the money to spend. Whether this will hold up without the integration of tablets into the marketplace and with the diversification of the user base remains to be seen.

Conclusions

Should you therefore consider the Windows Marketplace as a viable option for your app? The answer is that you should be but that now might not be quite the right time for it.

The platform has made a number of significant steps forward in the past year or so, with clear growth in the number of handsets shipped suggesting that consumers are warming to the platform and that the increasing presence of big name apps makes the marketplace a more palatable platform.

But issues remain that need rectifying. While the porting of an app isn’t necessarily that problematic, the lack of a tablet presence and a rather slim selection of app store optimisation options suggests that it is a natural fit for developers still focusing solely or predominantly on phones at this time.

That said, the signs seem to be positive for Windows Phone. Respectable monetisation per user, growth in the shipping share in important markets, moves by Microsoft to resole the platform issues and new schemes like App Social suggest that the Windows Marketplace could evolve into a strong platform in the future.

For those who can move onto the marketplace relatively easily and have an app optimised mostly for phones, the Windows Marketplace might well be an option worth investigating at least in beta format. But for those who may not have the resources or are mostly tablet focused, it would probably be sensible to hold fire on the Windows Marketplace for a couple of quarters to see if the wind keeps blowing in the right direction.