Yesterday I witnessed a vignette play out that I've seen a good number of times over the last year. A newcomer arrives in an office sporting a Lumia phone. (Just FYI, it was ann old school Lumia 800.) Two iPhone users saw it, looked at it, and made gratifying "ooh" and "aah" noises whilst the Lumia owner extolled the benefits. Conversation done the iPhone users returned to their desk. Neither one of the existing iPhone owners pledged that they would immediately go out and buy a Lumia.
It's a familiar refrain. Windows Phone looks good, people coo and ooh along when they see it, but still the marketshare remains stubbornly low.
One thing we do know is that platforms, regardless of their technology stack, typically go through recognisable stages of maturity. A platform will typically start through the expedient of a rag-tag collective of hobbyist developers adding mass to a platform through the industrious creation of a great number of small apps. As well as precedent in the home microcomputer market in the 1980s, and the web's ascendancy in the 1990s, the reason why the Apple App Store and Google Play are so full of apps is because a large number of hobbyists piled on to fill them up in the early days. The Windows Phone Store is similarly full of apps because of efforts of hobbyists.
But we also know from the way these things work that over time hobbyists get sidelined by the arrival of proper money. Hobbyists are often working under highly constrained budgets, and when proper commercial organisations start pouring money into a market hobbyists tend not to be able to compete. The analogy in general business is that they become very small businesses trying to compete with corporates. This is especially true when it comes to marketing budgets. In established markets its the amount of money that you have to spend on marketing -- which is essentially the process of distracting and interrupting people enough to notice your product -- becomes huge. Hobbyists can "magic up" investment for actual development (they simply remove "time" from other parts of their life and developer code), but marketing requires actual cash.
But there's another problem. At the start of a hobbyist market, the software in and of itself is relevant and delivers value directly. A good example of this is a todo list app. The user downloads it, puts in their tasks, and off they go. But as the market matures the value stops being something inherent within the software and apps start acting as a conduit through to some other commercial value. The benefit to the user of having an Amazon app isn't in the app itself -- rather the value comes from allowing the user to buy things on Amazon. eBay allows the user to trade. Facebook allows the user to do whatever they do on Facebook, and so on. That level of market maturation demands a proper, tangible business and that's also something that's difficult for a hobbyist developer to do.
Take the situation of a business like Costco developing an app for iOS and Android. The reason why I've picked this app is because it fits neatly into the sort of app that we're seeing at this point of market maturation. On the one hand they appear to have made a decision that they can cover enough of their target market by targeting just iOS and Android. On the other hand, the value of that app comes solely from the fact that Costco can use it to bring forward value from their main business, through the app, and to their customers.
By targeting iOS and Android they both add oxygen to the iOS and Android platform, but also starve Windows Phone of oxygen. Is a customer more likely to buy an iOS or Android phone because the Costco app is available? Perhaps not in isolation, but when it's not just Costco but a combination of Costco and thousands of its other business globally, en masse that has a devastating effect on Windows Phone. With just hobbyist apps available, Windows Phone remains stuck in a low gear with an, admittedly large, selection of "hobbyist class" applications.
What do I mean by "hobbyist class"? Well, much as I love hobbyists their constrained resources together with the fact that ideas don't have to go through the mill of commercial introspection, hobbyist apps can be a little ropey in terms of their basic quality. And, as discussed, it's hard for hobbyists to bring forward value from an existing business.
I think Microsoft knows that hobbyists no longer have any sway over the adoption rate of Windows Phone. If you look back at the recent Windows Phone 8 launch much airtime is given over to "hero" apps that Microsoft themselves have helped wet nurse into maturity. This also goes some way to explaining why Microsoft seemingly stopped helping hobbyist developers in the run up to the Windows Phone 8 release. It's likely internal resources were committed to helping more important partners because they knew that the value proposition there made more sense in a more mature market. Helping -- picking one at random -- Audible deliver an app on Windows Phone adds more value in one hit than helping a thousand hobbyists build todo list apps.
Where are now in the market is in a position whereby hobbyists can no longer have an effect on the adoption of a mobile platform because the apps they write no longer deliver the right type of value, regardless of how many of them they can build. Moreover platform owners, like Microsoft, have no direct control over what the hobbyists actually do. Together hobbyists bring a lot of energy into a platform, but that energy is very diffuse. It's more flashlight than laser.
In short, at this point, a hobbyist developer building an app for Windows Phone is not going to affect the market share of the platform at all. It's too late.
There's only one reason why a hobbyist would target Windows Phone -- the old classic move of autodidacticism, or "self learning". But, given that tablets are on the ascendancy and that iPad looks like it will maintain significant market relevance for the next few years, perhaps the autodidact amongst you might like to build up your Objective-C and Cocoa Touch skills.
What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.
Image credit: Microsoft