Samsung is riding high with its Galaxy phone, Microsoft is about to unleash Windows Phone 8, and Apple has set sales records with its iPhone 5. I touched on it in my last column () and wanted to elaborate.
Does the platform matter anymore? Or should I only care about what the phone can do for me--if that's the case, the apps available for the phone are the key determinant.
I was mulling this over when checking out the iPhone 5 (I was up for re-contracting, have been using an iPad and my phone was a Nokia Lumia 900). In Asia, the WhatsApp application is extremely popular. It's an application that lets you send text and media over your data connection, bypassing the need to pay usual SMS message rates. With the fast-fingered text-addicted population across Asia, it's no wonder the app has taken off.
WhatsApp has become a social platform like Facebook. People start group chats in it, and constantly banter and send photos and nonsense throughout the day. It's fun, it makes you feel connected, and it's essentially free.
Android, iOS, and Windows Phone all support WhatsApp. So in a way each platform has this "killer" application. Yet, on one of these platforms, it's supported in such a poor way that it may drive your decision to purchase a phone.
WhatsApp on Windows Phone 7 performs abysmally. It takes almost 30 seconds to launch the app and enter a conversation. That's such a painfully long amount of time that it makes one consider whether it's worth looking at messages friends and family are sending or just letting them "build up".
On the Android and iOS versions, it responds quickly; essentially the same as if you were text messaging or using iMessage (or Messenger/Facebook messenger on Windows Phone).
What does this mean? Regardless of how great a platform and how much time talented engineers have spent creating a fantastic mobile operating system, the lack of an app or poor performance of a key app may cripple the adoption of the platform.
It's great that the developer outreach teams are working hard to convince developers to write applications for their platform, but extra effort needs to be spent on convincing existing widely-used applications to come onboard or put in the extra effort. While the next killer app is in development now, a platform needs users on it in order to appreciate that app!
Simple example--Instagram and WhatsApp. If I'm using a Windows Phone, I don't get to see all my friends' photos on Instagram. While I am able to use WhatsApp, every time I look at a message I have to wait 30 seconds for the app to load. Over the course of a day that could mean more than 15 minutes spent just waiting to get to a message. As much as I like a platform, if a critical application performs poorly or isn't supported, there is no reason for me to use that platform.
Similarly to how hardware specs are less important when comparing top-of-the-line phones these days, the core functionality provided by the mobile OS is also not that relevant (they all have cloud storage, can post to Facebook, tweet, take photos, etc). It all comes down to the applications available and what I can do with them.
Microsoft is the one in most need of securing critical highly-used applications. Building an amazing Windows Phone-only app doesn't help since (essentially) no one is on the platform. It could be the most stellar app ever but if no one owns the phone that can use it, then it goes unused, and consumers don't seem to buy phones for unproven, unused apps.
Microsoft needs to liberate its cash hoard and get the same critical apps available to iOS and Android users as soon as possible. If they have that, then Windows Phone 8 has a shot at winning consumers with the things that are unique to it.
Uniqueness in itself is pointless. Knowing I can use the key apps that other phone platforms have AND have a unique phone? That's a winning proposition.