Windows Phone has been plagued with many problems over the years—its lack of an obvious flagship like the iPhone or Galaxy S, its miniscule third-party OEM support, or just the fact that it tried joining the market after the Android-iOS reign had already begun to take shape—but the most immediate issue facing any user of Microsoft’s mobile OS remains the general shoddiness of its app selection.
It’s a strange world where Microsoft—with various antitrust cases not far off in its rearview—can be considered an underdog, but such is the state of a smartphone industry where close to 95% of people are centralized in two controlling powers. Regardless of how comfortable we may be without our smartphones today, there is danger in getting too comfortable with a duopoly, and Microsoft still stands in the best position to provide some sort of competition.
Its OS, Windows Phone 8.1, is genuinely unique, with a clean, easy-to-use interface and a growing feature set that’s at least competitive with its two larger rivals. Many of those who use it like it. Many of those who’d give it a chance probably would like it. It just needs the apps to convince anyone to give it that chance.
Still, saying “it just needs the apps” sells the extent of Windows Phone’s dilemma short. Microsoft has made strides to get more developers onto its system, but sheer numbers have only been a minor part of its problem. Things could all change with the forthcoming Windows 10 update and its “universal apps” initiative, but for now, the issue is more multi-faceted.
To show you what we mean, let’s take a look at five of the most recognizable apps that Windows Phone still lacks. With each one, we’ll glean a different angle to the app woes that are helping to keep Microsoft from being a competitive alternative to the dual kingdoms currently in place.
Snapchat and the Chicken/Egg Problem
The saga of Snapchat and Windows Phone has been well-documented, but it probably best exemplifies the basic chicken and egg problem at the heart of the Microsoft’s mobile endeavors. The video/picture messaging app is one of the highest-profile programs to outright ignore Microsoft’s platform, mostly because it doesn’t feel like it has to, thanks to Windows Phone’s small market share (roughly 3% worldwide, per IDC). This is a case where Microsoft really isn’t even at fault—it’d probably love to have Snapchat onboard, but it doesn’t have enough leverage when developers don’t need it to succeed.
So we get a situation where a big company doesn’t want to build for Windows Phone because it’s unpopular, which in turn keeps Windows Phone unpopular, which in turn helps keep some developers from building for it, and on and on and on. Snapchat’s version of that cycle is particularly stinging for Windows Phone users, because it’s blocked any third-party alternatives (including WP developer Rudy Huyn’s popular 6Snap) for apparent security issues.
YouTube and the Third-Party Alternative Problem
Speaking of third-party alternatives to culturally significant apps you can use without a hassle on Android and iOS, YouTube is another app that isn’t available on Windows Phone. At least, not officially. Forget for a second that YouTube is run by Google—we’ll get to that bag of worms in a bit. The more pressing problem highlighted by YouTube’s absence is the number of shoddy, sometimes barely functional clones that have spawned in its wake.
The lack of key partnerships has led Windows Phone to rely on these sort of alternatives to widely-used programs, and while it’s not impossible for them to be great (the aforementioned Huyn is an example of someone who usually gets them right), more often than not they’re inferior by comparison, and come with a higher risk of breaking or losing support down the road. How could they not be?
It’s not just one or two of these things either—searching for something like YouTube on the OS returns a flood of knock-offs, all vaguely described in the hopes of being downloaded, each one more bumbling than the last. Android can have this problem too, but it usually winds up giving you the app you want. Windows Phone is not a minor league OS, but it certainly feels like one when you see some of the messes its lacking app store has caused.
Twitter and the Dead App Problem
Windows Phone has a Twitter app, which you can download and use and delete as you see fit. But it doesn’t have the Twitter app, the updated, more heavily-featured one that Android and iOS users have been treated to for the past few months. That version is more consistent with the full-on Twitter website, supports GIFs, lets you create and check lists, comes with dedicated sections for certain special events, and generally runs smoother than its Windows Phone counterpart.
This is the “dead app” problem, in which developers put updating the Windows Phone versions of their apps on the tail end of the backburner because they figure not enough people are using them. Twitter is far from the only popular app to do this, too—Bank of America, for instance, recently killed off any support for its Windows Phone variant, outright telling users to “just go to” its mobile website instead. Instagram, Vine, LinkedIn, and others have had their moments as well.
This is one issue that could feasibly be solved by Windows 10’s universal apps solution, because Windows PCs are treated with more respect than their mobile counterparts. For now, though, it demonstrates how Windows Phone’s apps conundrum doesn’t solely come down to what it doesn’t have.
The Gaming Problem
Instead of naming one particular hit game Windows Phone is missing, it’s more accurate to just cite the category as a whole. Few companies have had the kind of success in the living room that Microsoft has had with its Xbox consoles, but when it comes to mobile gaming, Windows Phone is a wasteland.
You’re just not going to find things like Threes!, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery, or Kim Kardashian: Hollywood on Microsoft’s OS; if you do, it’s usually going to come months or possibly years after they launch for Android and iOS. These kinds of games routinely top the “most downloaded” charts on Google Play and the App Store, so it goes without saying that their absence here is a big loss, both for Windows Phone users and Windows Phone itself.
More importantly, you’re far less likely to find the next hit game on Windows Phone—similar to how you’re far less likely to find the next Tinder or Uber or Meerkat or any other would-be hit from a smaller startup. We single out gaming here because it’s particularly flush with independent studios, but if the companies with cash can find little incentive to create for Microsoft, it’s hard to imagine the ones without it doing any different. There’s a feeling of hopelessness that permeates the experience of owning a Windows Phone in that sense, and it’s strong enough to keep people from ever wanting to jump onboard.
Microsoft has taken some steps towards making developing for Windows Phone less of an involved process, but it must continue to realize that very few people will go out of their way to make something specifically for its struggling platform. It needs to try to level the playing field, then use Windows Phone to accentuate its particular reach and strengths.
For all intents and purposes, the Redmond company understands this. And again, its universal apps strategy could prove especially fruitful when it comes to gaming, since it doesn’t need to do nearly as much convincing to get studios to create for Windows PCs or the Xbox One. Earlier this year, the company noted that Windows 10 would allow for Xbox One games to be streamed on Windows 10 computers or tablets, but if it can get those sort of console experiences over to phones (or get developers to carry them over smoothly), it could give Windows Phone a noticeable boost with the game-loving crowd.
Gmail and the Google Problem
Because this is Windows Phone, we’re not going to end on hope and promise. Instead, we’ll turn to something that doesn’t have a possible resolution on the horizon: Windows Phone’s relationship, or lack thereof, with Google.
It’s the simplest of all the issues here, and it’s another one that’s been plenty harped on by now: There are no official Google apps on Microsoft’s mobile OS. Gmail is the most used email service in the world, Chrome is its most popular browser, YouTube provides the fodder for so much of popular culture’s conversations, Google Maps guides millions every day—and they’re all nowhere to be found. This is despite the fact that they’re all on iOS, and the fact that Microsoft has ported a handful of its big-name programs over to Android.
It’s that last thing that gives off the greatest sense that, at the very least, it might be a long time before Windows Phone has a chance of ever getting on the same level as Android or iOS. It’s not dumb of Microsoft to say, “If you can’t beat them, join them,” but it’s the kind of thing that can alienate the people who’ve already committed themselves to the company’s OS. Microsoft has gained some momentum in recent months, and Windows 10 may spark a rejuvenation of its mobile efforts, but as it stands today, we’re entrenched in a system where your choices are effectively limited.