Inside Microsoft's courtship of phone developers

In the second part of a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Windows Phone 7, CNET's Ina Fried looks at Microsoft's efforts to woo app makers.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
10 min read

Editor's note: this is the second part in a series of stories on the behind-the-scenes efforts by Microsoft to bring Windows Phone 7 to market.

REDMOND, Wash.--Not far away, there's a town called Selah that has become something of a rallying cry for the 15 or so people gathered in a windowless conference room on Microsoft's sprawling corporate campus here.

Selah is known for its apple processing business. It's a place where they, literally, crush apples. Crushing Apple is something at which Microsoft used to excel, at least until the iPod and the iPhone came along.

If this still-powerful company is going to get back to its Apple-crushing ways, it will have a lot to do with the work of people in this room. This group, meeting on an overcast July morning, is going over the strategy for convincing developers to build apps for Windows Phone 7--Microsoft's effort to get back in the phone game.

Windows Phone 7's app lineup (photos)

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At the front of the room, Charlie Kindel, a 20-year Microsoft veteran with the intensity and the smooth bald pate of Marlon Brando in "Apocalypse Now," is delivering the marching orders while scrawling on a whiteboard.

Microsoft is leaning on its vast financial and technical resources to ensure that there will be a wide range of third-party programs when the first crop of phones running the new operating system hits the market later this month. The company will show off the operating system at a New York event next Monday, with the first phone arriving later this month in Europe and in early November in the United States.

"Go big or go home," Kindel says. And going big is exactly what Microsoft is doing with this project. This is no mad march into the wilderness. Executives here know a winning phone is a key to Microsoft's broader Windows ambitions. After years of false starts and a drift into single-digit market share, they understand the importance of getting it right this time.

Eye on developers
Over the last six months, CNET was given unusual, behind-the-scenes access to Windows Phone developers and executives as they readied the completely revamped phone operating system. In June, we looked at the technical side of this project. But just as important as the technology is an aggressive outreach to the developer community.

That's task No. 1 this July morning. On one side of the room are people who used to work on the Kin, Microsoft's short-lived and disastrous foray into making a smartphone for the youth set. On the opposite side sit a group largely made up of team veterans.

Kindel reiterates the game plan for the benefit of the Kin refugees. For the top handful of "must-have" apps, Microsoft has been pulling out all the stops, offering technical and marketing help, guaranteeing prime real estate in Microsoft's online store, and dangling other financial incentives including--according to sources--significant cash payments for the most coveted applications and sales guarantees for a number of others.

A wider group of apps--several hundred--have been slated to be part of an initiative known as "showcase," which will guarantee them a good spot in the phone's built-in app store, known as the Marketplace.

Beyond the must-have and showcase apps there's Microsoft's long-term push, dubbed Selah. The effort aims to tap Microsoft's massive, globally dispersed team of developer evangelists to woo thousands of top apps to Microsoft's mobile platform by the end of next year.

After outlining the basic plan of attack, Kindel hands things off to a lieutenant, Brandon Watson, who goes deeper into the strategy and shows off a few applications. It's a complicated task because of the latest test build of the Windows Phone software--it's without a formerly included feature that let prototype handsets output their screen image to a monitor via USB. Instead, workers have to take turns aiming a tiny camera at the screen so that the whole group can see the applications in action on a projector.

Watson encourages those in the room--even the business folks--to try their own hand at writing a Windows Phone application.

"You can talk about what you've read about, or you can describe what you have experienced," Watson intones. "We say it's easy to build an app. You need to believe in it."

Though largely invisible to the public until recent weeks, the push to land third-party applications has been at least as big a focus for Microsoft as the technical work that went into completing the operating system, which was finalized at the beginning of September.

Gamesmanship for Windows Phone 7
A big emphasis has been placed on games, both those created by third parties and those created by a new mobile game studio set up within Microsoft. The company hopes games will help Windows Phone 7 stand out, particularly because of the OS' ties to the existing Xbox Live online game service, which already has millions of users. For the first time, with Windows Phone 7, Xbox Live members will be able to use a phone to rack up achievements and improve their Gamerscore, a ranking of where one stands relative to other Xbox gamers.

Microsoft has already announced a number of Xbox Live games planned for the holidays, including Bejeweled Live, Halo Waypoint, Max and the Magic Marker, and The Harvest. Beyond games, the company has announced just a sampling of the apps that will be available at launch, a list that ranges from Netflix to OpenTable to Travelocity. Sources say that other big, yet-to-be-announced applications include eBay, YouTube, and Facebook.

Microsoft has also taken steps to get its workforce to stop carrying iPhones and get behind the company's Windows Phone push. It stopped reimbursing for non-Windows mobile devices some time ago and has pledged to give every full-time employee his or her own Windows Phone 7 device. Further, the company worked with its lawyers to come up with a tweak to Microsoft's employment terms to allow employees to profit from any Windows Phone applications they develop--a move the company hopes will help spur some programs from unexpected corners of the company.

Building a strong app lineup hasn't been easy for Microsoft, which first had to sell its own employees on the idea that it was really devoted to being in the phone business after years of less-than-serious commitment.

"My initial reaction was 'Wow, that's going to be a really hard job," Kindel recalls thinking when asked to take on the effort to line up developers. "It was a huge, bodacious challenge."

Kindel was dismayed to learn that, for the prior version of Windows Mobile, Microsoft had just three or four developers responsible for the software development kit needed to write applications. Kindel has quickly upped the effort by several orders of magnitude, both by expanding his own team and by drawing in people from other parts of the company, such as the Xbox team. In all, Kindel says Microsoft now has 300 to 400 people working on the tools and resources developers need to write programs for Windows Phone. Those folks are needed to convince both little app developers and big ones, like Twitter.

Watch this: A look at Twitter for Windows Phone 7

"Any time we take on a new project or a new OS there's debate and there is an opportunity cost," said Sean Cook, Twitter's manager of business development for mobile. In other words, Cook wanted to make sure it was worth the company's time, something Microsoft quickly assured the company it was. Twitter, Cook said, "recognized this was going to be a viable contender, and we really wanted to be there at Day 1."

Of course, Twitter's strategy depends on its service being accessible on every major phone. The choice to develop for Windows Phone is a harder one for smaller companies like Clever Sense, a 10-person outfit whose application, Seymour, acts as a sort of virtual concierge or personal assistant.

"Given we are a start-up, we have very limited resources," said Babak Pahlavan, CEO of Clever Sense (formerly known as Cellixis). "I have to be focused. I can't do 10 things at a time."

Though Clever Sense is part of Microsoft's BizSpark program for start-ups, Pahlavan said he was hesitant to bet too heavily on the company's mobile effort. "Obviously I am skeptical," he said, but an early peek at the clean, unique look of Windows Phone 7 convinced him it was worth his time.

Selah: Stop and listen
Microsoft won plaudits from developers, not just for redesigning a clunky operating system, but also for changing the way the company deals with developers.

In Hebrew, Selah means to stop and listen, something that developers say Microsoft has been doing an unusually good job of this time around. Humbled by its past failures, the company has tried to be both open and responsive.

"As a small start-up I have the opportunity to work directly with Microsoft," said Daniele Calabrese, CEO of Soundtrckr, a social music streaming service that's available for the iPhone and lets you stream music and share your choices with friends. With other platforms, like the iPhone, small developers say they're on their own to build their program, and then they have to just cross their fingers and hope their application is approved.

By contrast, Microsoft has tried to help shepherd developers through the process of getting their programs cleared for sale in the Marketplace--the on-phone app store which serves as the only means of distributing Windows Phone programs.

That's not to say there haven't been issues for developers, such as a lack of prototype devices. For months, all developers had to build their applications without being able to use a phone. Even now, many developers have to commute to a nearby Microsoft office in order to get hands-on time with a prototype.

While the company has built a good software simulator, Hoskins acknowledges that's only a partial solution. "There's nothing like actually touching the hardware."

That was a particular challenge for Motolingo, whose in-car application relies on the phone's hardware-specific elements. "The emulator only gets you so far," said Motolingo CEO Charles Nesser. An August event at Microsoft's Silicon Valley office was the first time developers at Motolingo and some other little outfits had a chance to work hands-on with the new phone.

Problem is, like the iPhone several years ago, Windows Phone 7 is novel, but missing some key features--even features that were part of past versions of Windows Mobile, such as multitasking and copy and paste.

Microsoft is hoping that it can still compete with the iPhone by building something that is deliberately different. The company is betting on an interface organized around "hubs" of interrelated applications, and broad categories such as "people" and "pictures," rather than individual applications.

"The iPhone experience is a bunch of cul-de-sacs," Kindel said. "We're a neighborhood...Because we have this panorama and it's a large landscape. You can actually move around the neighborhood and eventually get to the house you want to."

Sticking points
But, some developers say, Microsoft's hubs--its most exclusive neighborhoods--are still too difficult to get into. Twitter is a case in point. In order to build the proverbial power-user experience, it needs deep access to areas like the contact list, the people hub, and pictures galleries. But for this first version, Twitter won't have that. The result, combined with the lack of copy or paste, is that the Twitter app for Windows Phone 7, while unique and pretty, won't allow for important basics like being able to tweet a photo from one's library or even send a link from the Web browser.

"That's been one of the hurdles," says Twitter's Cook, but he adds that the company is hopeful it's just the growing pains of building a new operating system. "That is something I really chalk up to being a freshman OS," he said.

Another gripe among third-party developers has been around the performance, particularly when scrolling through long lists or making frequent connections to the Internet. It's an especially sore spot because Microsoft's own applications have better performance since their programs are written natively to the hardware, an option not given to developers, who must write to one of two supported sets of managed code: Silverlight or XNA.

For its part, Motolingo is trying to make the best out of another of the operating system's shortcomings: the fact that multiple third-party programs can't generally run at the same time. Motolingo, whose app is designed to monitor car drivers, is using that limit as a feature of its app: If users close the app while driving, clearly they are distracted and doing something they shouldn't be doing while driving.

While it may not have delivered everything developers might want, Microsoft has gone out of its way to make its programmers available and responsive.

In early July, the company held a two-day conference here in Redmond for some of its most sought after developers. During the day, teams from various agencies that specialize in designing mobile apps along with Twitter, met in Microsoft's Building 20--a lab set out especially for non-Microsoft teams to come in and work.

"At the end of the first day you had a really great understanding," said Twitter's Cook. That night, the discussion continued over wine and gourmet pizza, cooked on campus in a portable clay oven by Veraci Pizza, a popular Northwest pizza restaurant.

Microsoft also had its Silicon Valley event, a weeklong gathering attended by about 40 people from 13 start-ups at Microsoft's offices near the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. "I was there until 10 o'clock a few nights," said Brian Hoskins, a director of business development for Microsoft who is based in Mountain View and focuses on mobile.

Among those at the event was Motolingo. Its application can monitor if drivers are going too fast, endangering themselves, or wasting fuel. Those that drive a certain distance safely can score points and awards within the program. The application can even send a tweet with how one is driving, tapping into a peer pressure element.

All in all, Microsoft executives seem pleased with both the number and the caliber of applications they managed to get ready for launch. Not everyone Redmond courted will be there, though. Music streaming service Pandora, for example, won't be among the launch partners, sources said, despite a full-court press from Microsoft's top executives.

And, even with all its work, Microsoft doesn't expect its mobile marketplace will have anywhere near the number of apps that Apple, or even Google's Android has.

"We won't be able to have 200,000 apps or 100,000 apps or (whatever Apple has)," Kindel said. But, he argues, "that's actually a pretty bad experience. It's way too much cruft to plow through. We've done a bunch of things to make sure the marketplace we do release is high quality and it's easy for users to find the signal through the noise."

The question, of course, is whether it's a signal customers will want to receive.