Windows Phone app challenge: Can it stand up to the big boys?

Summary:This is where the rubber meets the road with Windows Phone. We take a selection of regularly-used apps and see whether Windows Phone can provide similar functions. The results may surprise you!

For the past few pages, we've been rating Windows Phone based on how well it works with a variety of apps I use every day on my Android phone. This is where it all comes together. How does it do? Should you buy one? If you do, will you like it?

Overall rating

Before we tally up the score, I have to say that the availability of some apps surprised me. I found a more complete app ecosystem on Windows Phone than I expected going in. That said, let’s tally up the score. 

  • Initial points at start: 5
  • Functionality: 42
  • Usability: 20
  • Overall grade: 67 of 100 or 67%

Before I tell you my final thoughts, I was curious how much the Google ecosystem skewed the results. So I pulled out the grades for Google Voice, Authenticator, and Hangouts and recalculated. 

  • Initial points at start: 5
  • Functionality: 40
  • Usability: 20
  • Overall grade: 65 of 85 or 76% (minus the Google apps)

My final conclusions

This is where the rubber meets the road. How well does Windows Phone meet the app challenge? Let’s remember that this particular challenge is based entirely on my usage model, and I’m just one person. But it’s fair to assume that everyone has their own unique usage model, and so we can (perhaps over generally) extrapolate one person’s app needs as an indicator of overall app success.

201408grading-scale

In terms of my usage pattern, factoring in the need to use Google systems for work-related activities, Windows Phone’s app ecosystem scored a 65 percent, or a relatively sad D. On the other hand, if you remove the Google requirement, the Windows Phone app ecosystem scored a 76 percent, or a C+.

Now, let’s be clear: C+ is not an A. But it is workable. Overall, I found more apps working for Windows Phone than I expected. I didn’t expect to find apps to control my lights, connect me to my family’s tracking software, or my backup software. But they were all there and that’s pretty exciting.

In this article, I haven’t mentioned the usability of the Windows Phone environment, and — with the exception of the Kindle app and wireless charging — haven’t spoken much about hardware. This decision tree is entirely about app availability. Honestly, if you’re choosing any form of computing device, you should always factor in whether you can do what you need to do when you buy the device.

So here goes:

  • If you live heavily in the Google ecosystem: you can get by with Windows Phone, but it will be an unpleasant struggle. Skip it.
  • If you need a few very specific apps: check to see if they are available for Windows Phone. If they are, go for it. If not, skip it.
  • If you love the availability of all sorts of apps for all sorts of things: you could survive with Windows Phone, but you’ll probably prefer iOS or Android
  • If you want to customize the home screen functionality: Android beats everything, but Windows Phone has potential. The failing is that all apps don’t handle dynamic tiles the same way and some of them do it downright poorly. If customizing your launcher is key to your use, go with Android. Otherwise, you might want to consider Windows Phone. It’s not perfect, but there’s some value.
  • If you are a Windows PC user with Office and Outlook: Windows Phone will be fine for you. There will be the usual Microsoft quirks, but you’re used to that.
  • If you’re just starting out and deciding on a smartphone: You might want to give Windows Phone serious consideration. They are available inexpensively, are relatively easy to use, and do a lot.

The bottom line

If you have no preconceptions about what apps you need or want to use, Windows Phone is surprisingly functional. But if you need specific apps or access to specific systems, do your homework. And, if you’re heavily integrated into the Google desktop world, using Windows Phone will be a challenge.

Windows Phone’s ecosystem is a lot further along than I had expected, but it has a way to go. Microsoft needs to pull out all the stops to bring in big applications (there is no excuse for not having a native Dropbox app, for example). But Windows Phone 8.1 does have some legs. It may not win the marathon, but it is a competitor.

If Satya Nadella came to me tomorrow and asked what he should do to make Windows Phone a success, I’d tell him to set up a billion dollar fund for developers. Ignore games, and make sure all the top-tier, second tier, and even third-tier apps (especially those with wide ecosystems like Dropbox) are ported over to Windows Phone. Many app developers are very small companies and a billion dollar war chest could most definitely convince a few thousand key developers to make the jump.

Without that, the more entrenched Android and Apple get, the harder it will be to get users to make the jump when the apps they rely on won’t jump with them.

As for me, I couldn’t do my job using Windows Phone, at least until there’s better integration with Google (and I’m not holding my breath on that). If I were to use it more as a gadget around the house to read Kindle books and make Skype calls, it would be fine. In fact, if I were keeping this evaluation unit, it would probably replace my iPhone 4S as my nightly Kindle reader with the Lumia. The screen is that much nicer.

Finally, I encourage Microsoft to introduce a non-phone Windows Phone. It might be a great way to get people used to the platform without requiring a contract.

What about you? We're always hearing from readers who love Windows Phone. What apps do you use? What about you iOS and Android users on the fence? Are you planning on switching?

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

Topics: Mobility, Android, Apple, Apps, DIY, Google, Google Apps, iOS, Smartphones, SMBs, Windows Phone

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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