Microsoft chasing Apple app lead with money

Trailing badly in the number of apps available for Windows Phones, Microsoft is hosting code camps to help creative developers gin up must-have programs.

Windows Phone 7 trails rivals from Apple and Android-powered devices for a host of reasons--it was late to the modern smartphone wars , it's stumbled rolling out updates , and carriers haven't been enthusiastically selling the phones in retail stores.

But the biggest challenge Microsoft faces is that the marketplace for Windows Phone carries a paltry 18,000 applications, compared with the more than 500,000 sold for iPhones on iTunes. Microsoft realizes it can't catch up in the near future, if ever. So the company is trying to fuel creation of must-have apps by giving developers free expertise, coding help, phones, and even waiving--for up to one year--the 30 percent sales commission on ads placed on the app that it typically takes.

Microsoft offers the benefits to a select few developers, hand-picked to participate in Mobile Acceleration Week code camps it holds a handful of times a year, including the one running this week in New York. For the New York camp, held in Microsoft's midtown offices, the company has selected six developers, each of which should have working apps available from the marketplace in the next week or so.

"We want these guys to build really compelling apps and we want them to be successful," said Brian Hoskins, director of Microsoft's Emerging Business Team. "We can help them make their apps sing."

The developers get one-on-one time with Microsoft engineers to help design the apps. They work on creating compelling user interfaces and hammer out the best ways to take advantage of everything from Windows Phone's notification features to its camera. After each day's work, developers come up with coding specifications that are sent to a Microsoft partner in India, where new code is written overnight, ready for the next round of programming the following morning in New York.

One developer, Digital Folio, is creating a shopping application that offers real-time pricing on products. For shoppers, that might matter since sites such as Amazon, change prices on some products, such as cameras, as often as seven times a day, Hoskins said.

Another developer, GroupMe, is working on an app that lets users text groups of people easily. That way, folks can put together a dinner with friends or set up a pick-up basketball game on the fly with their phone. GroupMe is also working on a conference calling for the app.

Hoskins said Microsoft chose the six companies in large part because they were start-ups that could benefit from the help. The company also wanted to find developers that were creating something unique, something that would standout among apps in the marketplace. And, for this particular code camp, it was looking for New York-based companies, though two happen to come from outside the region.

The company has held similar Mobile Acceleration Weeks in Mountain View, Calif., Washington, D.C., London, Singapore, and Tel Aviv.

The biggest benefit to developers may ultimately be the promotion Microsoft will give their apps. Microsoft plans to highlight each app on its marketplace when they're ready, offering exposure nearly impossible to achieve otherwise for a startup.

"It's a huge way to get a jump start," Hoskins said.

The code camps won't close the app gap with Apple. But Microsoft is hoping that the money is spends to convince creative developers to create marquee apps might just help close the perception gap.

About the author

Jay Greene, a CNET senior writer, works from Seattle and focuses on investigations and analysis. He's a former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and author of the book "Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons" (Penguin/Portfolio).

 

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