4 steps for Microsoft to fix Windows Phone's app problems

Windows Phone is a great mobile operating system, but it's still behind iOS and Android when it comes to apps. Here's what can change that.

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Josh Miller/CNET

The newest version of Windows Phone, version 8.1, is the best yet, bringing the once-minor operating system closer in line with the two dominating platforms, iOS and Android. But as I said in my review, Windows Phone is still lagging behind in its app store, and that's holding it back.

The situation is not as dire as it was a few years ago, when the app store was just starting to grow and was missing nearly every popular title. Today, you can download many of the must-have apps, including Facebook, Waze, and Vine, but they don't all have the same features -- or even work as well as their iOS and Android counterparts.

There's still hope, however. Microsoft has the power to fix the app issues that plague Windows Phone to make the operating system better and more appealing. Here are the four things I'd need for them to accomplish that.

Give me the real, full-featured apps

An early issue with Windows Phone was that many big-name titles from Android and iOS were simply missing from the app store. Now, the Windows Phone app store now has many of the apps you'd want, including Instagram, Waze, and LinkedIn, but many are simply not as good as the same apps on iOS and Android.

I was thrilled when Instagram and Vine came to Windows Phone -- that is, until I opened the apps. Instagram is still in beta, and while that can excuse some performance issues, it doesn't make up for the fact that you can't shoot or upload video in the app, or that the process to take a photo using the app is clunky. Also, it's been in beta since it was released in November 2013. Vine fairs a bit better, with a familiar design and all of the core features, but it's still missing many small details that the iOS and Android apps have.

Those two apps are great examples of why Microsoft needs to work with developers to get them to create the same full-featured apps you'd find on Android and iOS. It should push companies to continue to develop their apps, making them more stable and adding new features when needed. Windows Phone apps should have the same level of performance, design quality, and most importantly, features.

Stop developing apps for other companies

Another issue arises when you look at the apps Microsoft has built for Facebook, GroupMe, and YouTube. While Facebook works fine, and GroupMe includes all the necessary features, Google sent Microsoft a cease-and-desist letter over the YouTube app because it violated the company's terms of service. After some back and forth between the two companies, the app is now nothing more than an HTML5 wrap that goes straight to YouTube's mobile site when you open it. You're better off just going to Internet Explorer on your phone and typing in "youtube.com."

Also, because these apps are built by Microsoft, the companies behind them have no control over their features or when they get updated. At worst, you have Google blocking videos from the YouTube app. At best, you have Facebook, which is a few steps behind the "official" apps, and it doesn't even connect with Facebook Messenger -- the only app for Windows Phone actually built by Facebook.

Though I appreciate Microsoft's early effort to get the top apps into its store by building them itself, it's time to stop and let the other companies take over. Microsoft can focus on making its own apps -- including Outlook, Bing News, Office, and Xbox Music -- better, and we'll get a more genuine Facebook and YouTube experience, straight from the companies that built them.

Take an active role in getting more apps

Companies aren't going to develop for Windows Phone without some kind of coaxing. They need to see that it's worth the time and resource investment to build an app for what still remains a second-tier operating system that's behind Android and iOS.

Microsoft, to its credit, has taken steps to encourage more developers to build for Windows Phone, and works with the top companies to get them to develop as well. It offers a lot of developer resources and has made improvements to the tools used to build apps for both Windows 8 on the desktop and Windows Phone.

It needs to continue those efforts and even think of new ways to get more companies interested in developing their apps for Windows Phone. If it continues down that path, that will ultimately entice more developers to build apps, leading to a robust catalog of apps that's on par with Google Play and the App Store.

Embrace your competitors

Understandably, Microsoft has a vested interest in getting you to use Outlook, OneDrive, Office, and Bing apps, but it needs to realize that no one wants to be stuck with only those choices. By encouraging Google and Yahoo to developer their popular apps, such as Gmail, Google Maps, Yahoo Mail, and Yahoo Weather, for Windows Phone, it gives its customers the choices they want.

Gmail is especially important because it is the most-used email service in the world, a title it took from Microsoft's Hotmail (which now goes by the name Outlook) in 2012. Even Apple understood the value of having Google on its operating system well before that shift, when it approved the Gmail app for the iOS App Store in 2011.

As it stands now, you can add a Google or Yahoo account to your Windows Phone device in settings, but your emails, contacts, and calendar events will show up in the respective stock apps from Microsoft. This means you miss out on some key features of each service. For example, you cannot mark your Gmail messages as spam in Outlook. A full-fledged Gmail app, built by Google, would change that and give users the same experience they're used to from the Web.

Final thoughts

Windows Phone 8.1 is a great operating system, and it runs on a wide range of premium hardware. Feature for feature, it can almost match iOS and Android, but right now the biggest challenge holding it back is its lackluster app store.

Despite Microsoft's efforts over the last year to get more top titles into the store, there's still work to be done before Windows Phone gets the same quality apps as iOS and Android. So, Microsoft and Windows Phone developers, it's time to roll up your sleeves.

 

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