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Why apps could make Windows Phone the dominant mobile OS

Andrew Hoyle explains why Windows Phone is failing to make an impact, but what Microsoft can do about it to challenge iOS and Android.

Windows Phone hasn't made much of an impact since its launch in 2010. For all the praise from reviewers, it's still trailing miserably behind Android and iOS. But with Windows Phone 8 just around the corner, I reckon its fortunes are about to change.

Calling Microsoft an underdog feels about as ridiculous as calling Jupiter a mere asteroid, but that's exactly what Windows Phone is. Next to the goliaths of Apple's iOS and Google's Android operating systems, WP is a drop in the ocean and appeared on just over 1 per cent of smart phones at the end of 2011.

So what's wrong with it? Very little, in terms of functionality. Windows Phone is clean, simple and arguably very attractive. I often read comments by new users raving about the interface and the way it takes the simplicity of iOS and adds some of the customisability of Android. It even managed to tempt our very own Rich Trenholm.

All you need is apps

The problem with Windows Phone is its app store. Both the iOS and Android app stores are chock-full of apps that do pretty much anything you could think of. I won't debate here which of those two are better, but suffice to say they both offer vastly more apps -- at least eight times as many -- than are available in the Windows Phone store.

Although apps certainly aren't the only aspect of a good operating system, they're undeniably a major factor in its popularity. Many apps are now popular enough to be common household names, and so naturally the majority of everyday users will want access to them.

The problem is developers don't want to make more apps until there are more people using Windows Phone -- more customers equal more sales equal more money for them. But us, the customers, don't want to use it until there are more apps available. It's a vicious cycle that's extremely difficult to break, but if Microsoft wants to hit the mobile prime time, it needs to reverse it.

And it just might be able to. Windows Phone 8 is on its way like a runaway train, promising some significant tweaks to the software's underlying architecture that might see the app store quickly filling with all kinds of juicy stuff.

No longer hard to port

A key part of the update will see Windows Phone apps being built with similar core structures to iOS and Android apps, which would allow an existing app to be ported over without having to rewrite the entire thing, saving devs time and money. If you're currently making a hit app for other platforms, you won't need to shell out your kids' inheritance to pay for the app to be rebuilt from the ground up for Windows.

Ideally, apps currently in use on iOS and Android should only need a few relatively small tweaks in order to have them run on Windows Phone. It won't attract developers to build solely for the platform, but it may very well persuade many to launch a WP version of their current apps. If Microsoft can get this right, it'll be a definite ace in the hole for Windows Phone 8.

Perhaps more important, though, is Windows Phone 8's integration with Windows 8 for PCs. Windows Phone 8 and Windows desktop 8 will share the same kernel (the core architecture on which the software is built), which could potentially mean apps purchased through the upcoming Windows 8 app store would also be able to run on Windows Phones.

A market of millions

While this has yet to be properly discussed by Microsoft, it would mean -- in theory -- that Windows Phone developers would immediately have a potential market in the hundreds of millions of Windows desktop users worldwide.

Apple has a similar setup with the iOS and Mac app stores, but they're treated as totally separate entities -- if you buy an app for your phone, you'll have to buy it again for your Mac. If Windows apps could be offered as a one-time purchase, however, simultaneously running across desktop and phone platforms, Microsoft would have a huge incentive for hungry consumers like me to pick WinPho over iOS.

Of course, many apps -- such as Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop -- wouldn't be identical on a PC and phone, but if they were built on the same basic foundation, it would be much more simple to build mobile versions, which would keep costs low for developers. If costs were minimal, it would be much easier for both apps to be offered together as a single purchase.

With such a vast potential market, we may well see developers flooding to Windows Phone in the near future. Couple that with Windows Phone 8's support for multi-core processors and micro SD storage and I fully expect to see it posing a serious threat to Android and iOS.

If Microsoft plays its cards right with these updates and allows developers to easily bring their apps to Windows Phone and Windows desktop cheaply enough to be offered as a one-time purchase, it won't be long before the store is bursting at the seams and Windows Phone can become the platform of choice for the hundreds of millions of Windows users across the globe.