Microsoft is Missing Apps the Same Way They Missed the Early Internet

on May 17, 2013

It seems odd to me that Microsoft of all companies is so drastically behind the curve when it comes to apps for Windows 8 and Windows Phone. When you think about it, Microsoft of all companies was in the best position to create a better software buying experience, via an app store than anyone. Windows had 97 to 98 percent market share for the bulk of the PC era and software played a key role in that dominance. Why was there no Windows app store until the end of last year? ((Updated: There was a Windows Marketplace but came no where close to the app stores I am talking about)) It just makes no sense.

Similarly, Microsoft was in a growing position in smartphones with Windows Mobile. They had tinkered with software stores but the experience never really gained significant traction. Companies like Handango helped fill the gap but again much of what existed then is gone now.

The most robust third party mobile developer network I witnessed when I joined Creative Strategies 13 years ago was the Palm developer community. In fact, the Palm developer community in terms of passion, excitement, and quality of applications being developed, reminds me a lot of today’s iOS developer community. Microsoft never enticed the same commitment and passion for their mobile platforms as the Palm community, even when they gained share and Palm itself began shipping Windows Phone. Despite their efforts Microsoft is still today struggling with weak developer interest.

As I think about this situation that Microsoft is in, it reminds me of the situation they were in with Internet Explorer for so long. They missed the boat on leading the Internet revolution and now again they have missed the boat on leading the app revolution. All while they were in the best position to lead in both.

The Network Effect

Both Palm and Apple achieved the network effect.

In economics and business, a network effect (also called network externality or demand-side economies of scale) is the effect that one user of a goods or service has on the value of that product to other people. ((Alpheus Bingham and Dwayne Spradlin))

The economics in turns of monetary opportunity for developers, as well as the critical total addressable market achieved by both Palm and then with Apple, created a strong network effect. This is still going strong for Apple today.

Interestingly, despite Microsoft’s position in PCs, I would argue they never achieved the network effect. ((Happy to debate this point.))

You may have noted that I did not include Android in the network effect discussion. While it’s true Android has the lions share of the smartphone market, we also know just looking at Android’s market share does not singularly indicate the strength of a platform. Engagement is consistently reported as lower on Android than iPhone and developers are continually facing economic challenges of making money with Android.

Being in Silicon Valley I get to meet and talk with a lot of software startups. Android to many of these software companies I meet with is treated as a secondary priority. Rarely, do I meet with a company creating software for Android first or only. If this platform was doing well for the masses then I would imagine we would see more exclusive applications and I would see more software startups getting funded for Android only development. This is simply not the case. Android is benefiting from the network effect of iOS, however, as developers are generally taking their iOS first apps to Android eventually. Android has achieved a degree of the network effect by default, and on the heels of the iPhone.

This network effect is a key area that is driving both iOS and Android. This network effect has created long tail applications.

Long Tail Developers

Chris Anderson helped popularize the concept of the Long Tail with his book called The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. (link) The concept in short is that there is value found in having large quantities of something (apps in this case) which appeals to smaller groups of people. Another way of describing would be simply to say having a successful long tail model means having massive quantities of niche content. [pullquote]Popular apps may be the most profitable but long tail apps are often the most discoverable[/pullquote]

A successful long tail strategy, the one that I would argue creates the highest degree of loyalty to a platform or service, is one that has all the mass market goods (the popular items) but also and large quantities of goods that appeal to smaller groups of people. When we apply this theory to apps only iOS and to a degree the Google Play store are in the discussion. Popular apps may be the most profitable but long tail apps are often the most discoverable.

Imagine being a Windows Phone or BlackBerry user for a moment. Your friends or family members are all talking about the new apps they discovered or are using, for things like health and fitness, education, gardening, sports, etc. They all rave about these great apps that they love and are adding value to their lives. These apps don’t exist on your platform and probably won’t for a long time if ever, unless a critical mass is acquired. Which, of course, is not going to happen without long tail apps and long tail app developers. Its a chicken and egg problem.

Or imagine your kids sports team starts using an application to help manage schedules and parents assignments, but it only exists on iOS or Android. Your favorite grocery store, market, magazine, favorite brand, etc., comes out with an app, but it’s only available on iOS or Android. Your kids schools offer mobile apps, but they are only on iOS or Android. The workout video series you just bought has an app but it is only on iOS or Android. I hope you see my point.

Windows Phone and possibly BlackBerry may get the popular apps from the big developers, but where the platform really suffers is in the long tail apps and content, which is the driving strength for the mass market with iOS and Android. Only iOS and Android are attracting long tail developers at the moment.

Developing a critical mass of long tail apps and the developers who will continue to make them, is the biggest single hurdle I believe Microsoft, BlackBerry, and any other platform that aspires to enter the market. Without them, these alternative mobile operating systems will continue to struggle to find customers for their products until the same long tail apps make it to their platforms. If they make it to their platforms of course.