Microsoft needs a hundred "$1,000,000" apps, not a million "$100" apps

Summary:It's not my idea — it came from one of my Twitter friends — but it's bang on the money.

I present this tweet from Gustavo Fontana:

Screen Shot 2013-03-21 at 19.05.12

Gustavo is referring to the recent announcement that Microsoft is  going to pay developers $100 per app that is approved for inclusion in the Windows Store .

This $100 programme is a dumb move, and although I thought about writing about it at the time, sometimes a move is so dumb it's better just to ignore it. And now I'm not. I'm changable, like the British weather.

Why's the $100 programme dumb? Well, as Gastavo implies, it gets people writing throwaway apps just to get their $100.

It looks desperate, as it will only attract amateur developers looking to fill the Windows Store with rubbish.

Hundred-dollar apps

For the uninitiated, Microsoft operates regional "developer platform evangelism" teams (DPE teams) whose job it is to go around stirring up interest directly with developers and their managers for whatever technologies Microsoft wants to sell into that market. It's very much a sales-led operation — DPE members are a hybrid of salesperson and technologist.

The "$100 program" is a product of Microsoft US's DPE team. Of course, with the US being so dominant in the industry, it's been picked up by all the press, and it looks like a decision from the entire mothership, rather than just one sales sub-organisation with remit over just one region. 

Other regions do rather better. Microsoft UK's DPE team has a much more sensible programme that doesn't have the same attraction to developers wanting to throw together rubbish apps. The App Builder Rewards Programme has a top "prize" of a "two-night deluxe Paris cuisine break for two."

Moreover, the strapline on their campaign clearly says, "Show us that you're a game changer." Talk to the Microsoft UK DPE members and they'll talk about "quality" first and foremost. Those guys and gals understand the problem.

Like every complex organisation, it takes just one boneheaded move to swamp positive messages from one team with naff ones from another team.

Luckily, the US programme has a built-in death date of June 30th, after which point we can all forget about it and hope they've learned their lesson.

June 30th, by the way, is the last day of Microsoft's current financial year. Make of that what you will.

Million-dollar apps

Back to Gustavo's other question, which I'll reframe as, "where do million-dollar apps come from?"

Well, we know that Microsoft can get million-dollar apps on Windows Phone. Last October, Microsoft claimed they had "46 of the top 50 apps on mobile."

Those 46 apps are million-dollar apps — so where did they come from? They didn't just pop into existence out of the goodness of the developer's heart.

Some of those top-drawing apps came as a result of a liberal application of schmoozing.

There's nothing sinister about this — it's just business development. If you've been involved in managing any type of business, you would have done this yourself. Making friends, calling in favours, or just straightforward "building relationships" is a good way to make things happen. Business was developed, relationships made, and million-dollar apps are now available on Windows Phone, whereas there was a time when they were not.

But what next? The problem with that effort is that it doesn't scale. It took various teams within Microsoft months of effort to make those 46 apps happen. And there is still no Instagram support — this being perhaps the most important of the four apps that are missing from the 50.

A solution

I present this idea from Ars Technica author and all-around good egg, Peter Bright:

Screen Shot 2013-03-21 at 19.04.58

He's cracked it. We can all go home now.

This idea is stone-cold genius thinking. On all the platforms, app ratings are generally helpful indicators of the quality of apps. If you go outside of considering just mobile, Amazon is a great example of another place this works to help customers. (A product's star rating actually affects its sales rank within Amazon's system.)

Personally, I think the $1m bounty is too high for most categories, but even a bounty as low as $100k would be enough to incentivise the right sort of business to build the right type of app. I think you'd also need multiple winners per category as well. The only rule is that the users have to decide through downloads and ratings.

The $100 programme, if you don't want to do the math, is a $2m total spent over four months. Even a generous bounty programme run in perpetuity would fit into a multi-billion dollar marketing spend.

Anyway, it's a lovely idea because everything gets pushed up from the bottom, where the customer's are. Do a good job and produce apps that get good ratings, and the platform vendor rewards you for that.

No rubbish apps, just ones that users want to vote for.

Conclusion

The overarching problem here is that with no mass against Windows Phone or Metro-style apps in Windows 8, it's not clear why someone would invest in developing apps for those platforms.

A top-down approach is almost never going to work. Even done neatly — like in the case of the Microsoft UK DPE team — is it ever going to be enough to convince people to pour real money into building million-dollar apps?

The trick has to be to get adoption going. Once enough devices are out there, the problem solves itself. But then, can you build a platform without apps?

In the enterprise, things are a little different in that the power of top-down big-ticket sales still works and will likely always work. But if you're playing that game, you're in a niche market that's becoming more niche as the consumer market gets ever bigger. Microsoft will sell tablets in that space. Software companies selling business software will target Microsoft tablets as a result.

However, I'm starting to think that there isn't a way to fix this in the consumer space. Perhaps it's all decided now and it's going to be iOS and Android as the dominant players until ten years from now when we're all talking about whatever it is that's creating a post-post-PC world.

In consumer-land, if adoption does start to grow for Microsoft's post-PC devices, a programme like the one Peter has sketched out could really be a decent adrenalin shot delivering loads of energy into the developer community at exactly the right time.

It's a great solution, and I love it.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: Apps

About

Matt Baxter-Reynolds is a mobile software development consultant and technology sociologist based in the UK. His latest book -- "Death of the PC" -- is available on Amazon now.

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