Lance Ulanoff and Robbie Bach explain why library size doesn’t matter for WiMo apps vs the iPhone
October 14th, 2009
Daniel Eran Dilger
Lance Ulanoff, the man who in 2003 wrote that an obscure flaw in Mac OS X Jaguar made it “just as vulnerable as Microsoft Windows” during a year that businesses suffered $55 billion in virus-related losses due to their use of Windows, who in 2006 wrote a diatribe reviling bloggers so masterfully link-baiting that John Dvorak ‘bowed in awe,’ and who served as the canary in the coal mine last year in warning us all about the dangers of DRM-free music (which he called the “road to ruin”), is now serving as one of the few Windows Enthusiasts ready and willing to advocate for Microsoft’s beleaguered Windows Mobile platform.
In his PC Mag blog posting, Ulanoff consumed 978 words (17 of which were “I”) explaining why the catalog size of Apple’s iPhone App Store in comparison to Microsoft’s fledgling Marketplace for Windows Mobile didn’t matter and that nobody should concern themselves about it. When Ulanoff ran out of his own rationalizations, he began repeating those voiced by Microsoft’s Robbie Bach.
Bach is the man who runs Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices Division, also known as the black hole that consumes billions of Microsoft’s monopoly profits while producing loss leader products like the Zune, Windows Mobile, Microsoft TV, and the Xbox 360, while managing supernovas in progress like Pink and Danger.
This last year, he managed to only lose $31 million. That’s almost a profit compared to 2007, when the group lost just shy of $2,000,000,000. Of course, a billion of that was related to the Xbox failure crisis fund, an expense that was announced just after Bach dumped $6.2 million of his Microsoft stock.
Bach’s talking points for Windows Mobile apologists
In explaining away the scant offerings available within his new Windows Mobile Marketplace, Bach contributed such gems as, “The fascination with the absolute number [of apps available] is really nothing but a fascination.”
How do you argue with that kind of crystal clear logic? Fascination is nothing more than… wait for it… fascination. That sounds like the kind of thing one says when on LSD. But these kinds of cerebral long jumps into the vast inky black of existential being are exactly why Bach gets paid the big bucks. It certainly has nothing to do with creating successful products or not losing his company’s money or his customers’ data.
“Do you have the right apps? Do you have the apps that people are going to use? Do you have the apps are going to care about. We’ll certainly have that,” Bach said of the 260 apps in the recently opened, Microsoft-run Windows Mobile store.
Bach also appealed to Ulanoff’s sense of reason by noting “how difficult it is to find what you need in an application catalog as big as the [iPhone] App Store.” I know I’m always flummoxed when I try to find a game and there’s too many to choose from. It’s like trying to buy a song when iTunes offers 11 million of them. Which one do I want? How will I know it’s the right one? And oh my, they’re all DRM-free. Oh the humanity! Please, Microsoft, save us from this tyranny of choice and interoperability.
This kind of repartee might give you the sense that Bach and Ulanoff are participating in an infomercial. They sound like Jack Black in Envy pitching Pocket Flan as a convenient tube-based solution to the many problems of eating cornflakes when skydiving.
What’s really odd is that Microsoft has never needed to invent this line of convoluted logic before. Instead, the company has always maintained that lots of apps are a good thing, and that Windows PCs were able to solve problems Macs couldn’t because of the variety and scope of custom software titles available. Apparently all that is now out the window.
If this wasn’t all enough on its own, after spending nearly a thousand words on why numbers don’t matter, Ulanoff then stopped to assure us all that Bach is adamant that Microsoft is expecting to begin pumping out software titles “in volume” any day now. The holdup Bach says, is that it “takes time to get the development environment out to people” and that “people were focusing on other things.”
That’s sort of a placeholder for logic when you consider that Microsoft has had nearly a year and a half to whip together a storefront to sell Windows Mobile apps that already exist for a platform that is now nearly a decade old. What are “people” focusing on instead, logging into Wikipedia to aggrandize the company in any and all articles referencing Microsoft? Well somebody is clearly busy doing that. Maybe the company can reassign them to actually do some work. I guess it’s too late to back up the company’s Danger datacenter, but maybe they could develop a web browser that doesn’t stink.
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Strength in numbers?
The reality is that, of course, sheer numbers of mobile apps do not really matter. You can only install 180 apps at a time on the iPhone before they start falling off your Springboard’s Home screen pages. Having over 85,000 apps in the library is only a benefit to those who want specialized apps you can’t get elsewhere, or a creative new pool of games and experimental programs like Augmented Reality apps and all of the other cool new things that aren’t available on other mobile platforms.
If you only want to do basic things like read email and browse the web, you can do that without downloading any apps. Just ask the early adopter iPhone users. If we mind-travel back to 2007, we can relive what shill groups like ABI Research were getting paid to say then: that the iPhone “wasn’t really a smartphone” because it didn’t have a mechanism for running third party software apart from its web browser. Windows Mobile offered the exact opposite: a mechanism for third party software without the ability to do do basic things like read email and browse the web.
At the time, I examined what purported to be the rich selection of third party apps for Windows Mobile. What I found was that the top ten lists of available apps were all efforts to patch up things that were broken on Microsoft’s mobile platform. I tallied up that you could spend over $450 to buy a bunch of titles that solved problems that shouldn’t really exist (memory managers, system cleanup apps, file backup, and so on) or which addressed issues that should have been addressed by Microsoft (a photo browser, a touch screen input panel, a PDF reader, an iPod music player app, a real email client to replace Pocket Outlook, and the like).
There was also plenty of just plain junk beside that, from Ringtone choosers to Ghost Detectors and Love Detectors and Lie Detectors. The great thing about Windows Mobile apps (and I say that sarcastically) is that all this crap was priced at around $30 each. Today, the same wags that spoke of Windows Mobile as a serious platform back then are wagging their fingers at the free or 99 cent flashlight and fart apps available for the iPhone. Really? Was it better when you could pay $30 for junk apps that lacked the fancy graphics?
Junkware in a meritocracy
Yes, there’s a lot of junk at the bottom of the App Store. Apple built its store to percolate original, useful and smart apps to the top, regardless of whether they were designed by an indie or a major developer. That’s something that no other platform can really boast.
While junkware exists, the iPhone’s 85,000 title library also provides for a lot of very useful things. One of the “killer apps” to emerge for Apple’s mobile platform is the wide array of casual games. Sure, mobile phones have long had Flash and JavaME craptacular games that are as much fun as Minesweeper and look about as dismal, but the iPhone really provided a great platform for delivering addictive, great looking, and fun games to play in the elevator or on a break. These games rival dedicated handheld gaming devices, one of those things I pointed out a long time ago, and which everyone else is now agreeing with.
Beyond games, there’s lots of other categories of useful apps on the iPhone. The core usability of the iPhone interface also makes it possible to actually find and install these apps, keep them updated, and access them quickly in the user interface. Those are all serious problems on Windows Mobile, where installing an app can be a huge hassle that involves installing other frameworks via a tedious PC-tethered sync process.
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Why WiMo apps aren’t in the Marketplace store
Ulanoff nearly missed stating the reality that Windows Mobile can count something like 20,000 apps, although virtually none of them are anything you’d want to download, let alone pay for. They’re still around $20-30, they mostly all look and feel terrible, and they’re all designed around Bill Gates’ Tablet PC fantasy that never took off, which means you need a stylus to use them and they have an awful “Windows desktop in a tiny box” interface.
But none of those problems are the reason why Microsoft’s new Marketplace store only presents 1% of the spectrum of mobile apps that ever pooped out of Visual Studio.
The real reason why Microsoft’s new Windows Mobile store doesn’t have all of these worthless turds floating in its catalog is because the company expects developers to do more work than iPhone developers have to do (including targeting their apps to the different sub-platforms within the platform, such as PocketPC touchscreen devices and “Windows Smartphone” non-touch screen models, each in different resolutions and sporting different hardware features), pay $99 per app to submit them to the store, and then keep paying for resubmissions every time the app is denied. And of course, submitting the same app as both a Pocket PC app and a Smartphone app counts as multiple submissions. Given the installed base of WiMo users and their unfamiliarity with installing software, there simply isn’t a business model supporting this fee trap erected by Microsoft.
Two approaches to selling apps
Unlike Apple, Microsoft didn’t set up its WiMo app store to create a self-sustaining engine to create a rich variety of mobile software titles. Microsoft doesn’t make any direct revenues from selling Windows Mobile phones, so doing all the work to set up a store, just to have a store, wasn’t really the attraction. Instead, Microsoft hoped it could install a toll gate across the Windows Mobile application bridge and start raking in money like Apple was.
The problem is that Apple wasn’t raking in money, or at least it wasn’t originally intending to. The company very clearly outlined a plan to break even on the App Store, just as it had been doing in iTunes. Those businesses (media and software) both grew organically, and are now to the scale where they generate enough money to clearly have been good business investments in hindsight.
Microsoft’s approach was to try to caesarian section the goose for its golden egg, a get rich quick scheme that didn’t take into account how the flow of apps would be retarded by layers of additional complication, additional rules, and additional fees. This isn’t speculation; Microsoft pointedly announced its plans a year ago when it advertised its need to hire a manager to drive “monetization of the service by Microsoft.”
The time you don’t have
Microsoft doesn’t have the leisure time to wait for its mobile software store to slowly grow under the oppressive conditions it set up for its developers. The company is frantically trying to yank open its Marketplace flowers before they’re ready to bloom. Of the pathetic number of apps currently available, none will add any real value over the next year as Microsoft attempts to coast by on its placeholder Windows Mobile 6.5 release, which has been universally panned by critics.
WiMo 7, which was supposed to be out by now, promised to add a bunch of things that could allow it to be compared to the 2008 iPhone. Instead, it’s been pushed off for at least another year. When it arrives, the iPhone will have upgraded to 4.0 and the App Store will likely have passed 5 billion app downloads and probably have something like a quarter million apps. Of course, the sheer number of apps won’t matter. What will matter is that there’ll be an app available to do whatever you want.
And the reason that will be the case is because Apple created a viable business model for mobile software, didn’t try to bleed its third party developers dry to make a quick buck, and operates with a long term term plan rather than just scrambling to put out fires with interim placeholder products while it blows vaporware smoke. That was what Apple was doing in the 90s. All of which makes it easy and fun to laugh at Microsoft’s ineptitude and its loyal pundit priesthood that bends backward to justify and explain away all the absurdity.
Which reminds me: Mr. Ulanoff, how are you coping in the post apocalyptic world of DRM-free music?