Former Windows chief illustrates Microsoft's mobile app dilemma

Steven Sinofsky explains how Microsoft's challenge in catching up with iOS and Android is in convincing developers to write code for a third platform.

Dan Farber
3 min read
Former Windows President Steven Sinofsky. Microsoft

Getting tens of thousands of app developers to focus on anything other than iOS or Android at this point is a significant challenge, according to former Windows chief Steven Sinofsky. In a recent blog post, he wrote:

Today app developers generally write apps targeting several of the mobile platforms. If you look at number of "sockets" over the past couple of years there was an early dominance of iOS followed by a large growth of Android. Several other platforms currently compete for the next round of attention. Based on apps in respective app stores these are two leaders for the new platforms. App developers today seeking the most number of client sockets target at least iOS and Android, often simultaneously. It is too early to pick a winner.

Some would say that the role of the cloud services or the browser make app development less about the "client" socket. The data, however, suggests that customers prefer the interaction approach and integration capability of apps and certainly platform builders touting the size of app stores further evidences that perspective. Even the smallest amount of "dependency" (for customers or technical reasons) on the client's unique capabilities can provide benefits or dramatically improve the quality of the overall experience.

In discussions with entrepreneurs I have had, it is clear the approach to cross-platform is shifting from "obviously we will do multiple platforms" to thinking about which platform comes first, second, or third and how many to do.

Without mentioning Windows, Sinofsky illustrates Microsoft's challenge in catching up with iOS and Android, which dominate mobile computing with more than 800,000 apps each. Microsoft's Windows Store has about 100,000 apps since it officially launched in October 2012. While the growth rate for Windows apps is impressive in a short period, and Windows has replaced BlackBerry as the third choice for developers, many popular iOS and Android apps are missing.

As a pure market opportunity, Windows lacks the massive customer bases of iOS and Android. For the three-month period ending May 2013, Android had 52 percent of U.S smartphone sales, followed by iOS with nearly 42 percent, according to Kantar Worldpanel ComTech. Windows grew nearly 1 percent year over year to 4.6 percent.

With less than 5 percent U.S. smartphone share, and an IDC-estimated 3.2 percent of worldwide share in the first quarter of 2013, Microsoft is playing catch-up in attracting developers to its mobile platforms. But the company that dominated the desktop for decades is known for its persistence in developing a market, and it has very deep pockets. It grew its U.S. search business from zero to 17.4 percentover the last several years in the face of Google's massive investment in its core product, and it expects to do the same for the Windows mobile platform.

Creating apps for Windows could provide first-mover advantage on a well-financed, emerging platform, but it's a longer-term bet that most development shops cannot afford to make until Windows reaches a larger customer base.

"The only thing we know for sure is that the APIs, tools, and approaches of different platforms will continue to evolve and diverge. Working across platforms will only get more difficult, not easier," Sinofsky wrote, especially as each platform vendor is trying to create more differentiation and innovation rather than cross-platform standards.