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Apps are crucial to Windows Phone success

Giving its online apps catalog a refresh is one way that Microsoft is redoubling its efforts to keep Windows Phone in the mobile game. A year after launch, how good are the apps you can get?

IMDb for Windows Phone 7

This morning, Microsoft relaunched its online catalog for Windows Phone Marketplace, a move that gives Microsoft's nearly year-old OS a little more life, even as it turns our attention to the spotty state of Windows Phone apps.

Like it or not, the number and quality of apps in a platform's on-device marketplace can just as easily defend an operating system's existence or strike a lasting blow. (Just ask HP, and Palm before it, how the well-received WebOS withered, in part because of its anemic app catalog.)

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Today, the Windows Phone Marketplace has around 30,000 titles, compared with more than 250,000 Android apps and iOS' more than 500,000 speculated programs. It's a paltry comparison, until you consider that in four months, Windows Phone Marketplace ballooned 12,000 apps, up from 18,000 apps last May. Even then, its app count was arguably ahead of RIM's BlackBerry App World.

Already behind
In truth, Windows Phone's growth is commendable, at least by the numbers. The platform's debut immediately put Microsoft at a disadvantage. Based on an all-new software backbone, Redmond's new mobile OS wiped the app catalog clean. Programs that worked with Windows Mobile 6.5 and before were instantly part of Microsoft's embarrassing mobile past. Windows Phone 7 was a fresh start.

Microsoft made sure there were some high-profile apps in place to show off the operating system's new design before the phones launched, like Twitter, Fandango, IMDb, eBay, and Slacker Radio.

At the end of the day, Microcoft's advance work with partner developers, and the app market's growth to 30,000 apps in less than a year, matters little to consumers who want a smartphone, and all its app-y possibilities, now. What good is a market, online or otherwise, if it doesn't satisfy users' thirst for apps, apps, and more apps?

Does Windows Phone have the goods?
Luckily for Microsoft, the company has made in-roads in bringing on board some of the biggest developers and titles, and the company says it's got the majority of the top mobile apps in its own retinue.

Today, the Windows Phone Marketplace includes popular apps like: Angry Birds, Amazon Kindle, Amazon app, Epicurious, Groupon, Flixster, Neflix, Slacker Radio, Vevo, The Weather Channel, YouTube, Rdio, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, ShopSaavy, Shazam, ESPN ScoreCenter, Yelp, Kayak, FourSquare, and Zillow.

Other top Microsoft apps include these popular games: Angry Birds ($2.99), GravityGuy ($2.99), Fruit Ninja ($2.99), Need For Speed ($4.99), and Plants vs. Zombies ($4.99).

Still, there are scores of other apps it currently lacks, like official apps for Google's services (apart from Search), Pandora, Spotify, Living Social, Yahoo Messenger, Yahoo Sportacular, WebMD, Hulu Plus, Starbucks, and countless official apps for banks (like Chase and Wells Fargo--there is one for Bank of America), airlines (like Southwest and United--Microsoft has American Airlines), and retailers (like Wal-Mart and Best Buy).

The top 10 free apps tracked for Android, iPhone, and Windows Phone (as of September 26, 2011) are an interesting mix:

  • Microsoft: YouTube, Adobe Reader, Facebook, Minesweeper, Free Music Downloads, Sudoku, FastBall 2, Bubble Shot, ESPN Score Center, Penguin.
  • iPhone: Office Zombie, Tiger Woods PGA Tour, Hair Plucker, Are you quick enough?, Stupid Ninjas, Draw 'n' Go: Awesomeness!, RC Plane, Temple Run, Instagram, Google+.
  • Android: Facebook, Google Maps, YouTube, Pandora, MP3 Music Pro, Angry Birds, Hanging with Friends, Netflix, Google+, Advance Task Killer.

It's interesting, but not necessarily telling. The larger the volume of apps, the more they can fluctuate. According to Nielsen findings, the top 50 apps can turn over in a month.

eBay, Windows Phone 7

Quality versus quantity
I'll be the first to concede that in the app market, quantity doesn't guarantee quality, based on the sheer volume of drivel choking the iPhone App Store and Android Market today (the App Store has no fewer than 759 "fart" apps, you should know).

Many titles are there because of the simple economic factors of supply and demand; if everyone wants an iPhone and an Android phone, creating an app is a manageable way to fill a need or make a buck.

On the other hand, the presence of official apps from reputable large developers speaks to the confidence those companies have in a given mobile platform. Even here it's dollars that motivate a match. The companies that make the apps have limited financial and human resources, so the order in which an app is almost always dictated by how popular the platform is. Often, BlackBerry is left for last these days--or left behind entirely--by all but the die-hard loyalists.

It doesn't help that Windows Phone has created a new visual style that iPhone and Android developers can't simply tweak before submitting to the Marketplace for approval, unlike some apps for those that look almost interchangeable on a Google-made or Apple-made device.

Time and again, CNET has been told by developers (especially medium or small ones) that a Windows Phone version of an Android or iPhone app may come later down the line--depending on if the platform proves lucrative, or solvent.

Therein lay the (almost) Catch-22 of the mobile app store. To snare developers' interest, you must have users. To snare users' interest, you must have apps. Of course, that overstates things, but you get the point. Microsoft has persevered in part because of its relationship with developers from its Windows Mobile days, and in part because it simply soldiers on.

Windows Phone is in a good place to grow its app catalog, and even if the app store peaks at 100,000 apps while the other app stores swell to 800,000, it's doubtful that Windows Phone will nose-dive as a result. Microsoft has also taken the position with App Connect that what you do with your apps is also key.

By the same token, Microsoft must continue its efforts with developers--especially of top products--if it's going to achieve any semblance of parity with Android and iPhone, and therefore added credibility with prospective Android and iPhone users.