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

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!

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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, Google Apps, DIY, SMBs, Smartphones, Android, iOS, Google, Apps, Apple, Windows Phone

About

David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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222 comments
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  • Thank You!

    It is very interesting to see how a user with specific needs can/cannot tailor their use to a Windows Phone. I appreciate the non-biased article. It has certainly helped me in my decision about whether or not to make the jump to WP this fall. I really wish Google would open up their services to WP. It is a shame that they have not so far. Microsoft, make the $1B fund!
    techmeIN64
    • Google is becoming odd

      Google has some services for Windows Phone, such as the Google search app. However - Since Windows Phone 8 there is no technical reason why Google couldn't port there apps for Windows Phone. Some big wig at Google is choosing not too, just like Apple. Apple could easy port apps like facetime, etc, but ohh no that would be too nice of them. Google please stop behaving like Apple. Fact is that Microsoft has the most cross platform apps.
      Sean Foley
      • Apps

        I'm a Lumia user, have a MacBook, and a Samsung Android tablet. If you're invested heavily in one ecosystem, I understand why people want to stay with it. The app argument to me, it's just old. My God, why not just look something up with a web address? I use to use a Droid and the sea of widgets made me sick. My experience with WP 8.1 has been great. Wireless charging built in, off line maps that use no data(like the writer said), Cortana(in beta it's just fantastic!) with location based reminders, etc. People say Windows phone isn't customizable, apparently haven't used it. The live tiles are great, not static icons....widget widget widget..
        You can pin just about anything to the home screen, change the size, color, background... My girlfriend was a die hard Android fan for years, she gave it up for a Lumia 928. Xenon flash, best photos, especially in low light. There's a place for all the ecosystems... Choices are good for the consumer! Cheers to all!
        mattmossmusic
        • the problem with LIVE...

          the problem with any thing LIVE on you home screen is that it suck the life out of the battery. I got rid of all my LIVE background and anything LIVE to save on battery life.
          CyberCitizen
          • battery & Live

            I haven't switched off Live yet- however my 1520 outlasts my previous Note 3 by some margin (though not as long lasting as my G Flex). I could try turning off the Live feature. However, it's led to me discovering more interesting content than I have done on android or iOS- and there's something exciting and interesting with the changing WP interface compared to iOS and even android with widgets (which I was a heavy user of). iOS doesn't get in the way of the apps I want to use. Android allows me to tinker with the UI a lot (not necessarily adding a lot of value, but fun). WP gives me an interface that is fresh, without me having to customise too much and which allows me to manage things the way I want to more easily (e.g. having a tile for a specific book I'm reading). There's something about the way WP uses the screen space and the up/down scrolling that suits my usage very well compared to android (even when I set phones to be 5 columns by 6 rows).
            Andrewpost
          • Live Tiles vs Widgets/Live background

            MS has done pretty good at limiting the impact of LiveTiles on the battery. It also limits the functionality compared to widgets but I thinks it a good balance.
            CJArnola
          • I just can't understand you Microsoft lackies!

            What every. Go play with your settings to make your battery last longer. A long lasting paperweight is really not that much more useful that a paperweight that stops working all together. They BOTH just sit there, being heavy and useless!
            NoMore MicrosoftEver
          • I just don't understand

            you scroogle lackies, my droid got about 4 hours of battery life with NO apps on it except the crappy ones it came with. My Lumia Icon will go two days with live tiles and me actually using it for more than emergencies. lagdroid is the bane of the phone os and scroogle is an unscrupulous company.
            hoppmang
          • .....

            You must have had a bad battery . My Note 2 gets 2 to 3 days on a battery with average daily use.
            Fletchguy
          • And who is

            better? Not Android unless you want to go through 3 different things to get where you want. Or iOs for that matter.
            Tom French
          • No it is not a problem . . . .for me.

            I have several live tiles, and I usually have in excess of 60% battery when I plug it in at night. Samsung ATIV S Neo.
            Detfan
          • Wow,

            I have a lumia 1020. Used it for 5 months. Never turned off Live tiles and I get 2-3 days per charge if I am not watching videos or using the Bike Tracking App.

            I plug it into my computer, it presents as a disk drive and charges at same time, so never even use the wall plug charger.

            Really wonder what your Live Tiles are doing Sir. Really wonder ....
            RayInLV
      • Also

        Google Authenticator? Why not just use the official Microsoft Authenticator, he didn't have to use a third party authenticator. If he can trust Google's Authenticator app, I don't see why he should have less trust in the Microsoft version.

        When I switched, I just enteres "microsoft authentikator" (I'm in Germany, so German app names) and it was at the top of the list.

        Google's active blocking of WP is a shame. MS play nice in the other direction...
        wright_is
        • MA

          I agree, this is what I use for all sites, and it is an official Microsoft App! Try this one David and update the score!
          msftds
          • The updated score ...

            The updated non-Google score would be 70 out of 85 = 82% == B-
            bitcrazed
          • Agreed -- also web monitoring

            There's a nice app called Pingdom Pulse for monitoring your Pingdom account (both free and paid accounts). It has live tile support, etc. Since that app got only a 2/5 score, it seems it would be raised significantly with inclusion of this app.
            Speednet
        • Thank you

          I was hoping someone would mention this. Google's and Microsoft's authenticator apps work the same way.
          safesax2002
        • Microsoft plays nice?

          Have not had a laugh like that since I don't know when.
          Microsoft's DNA is play to obliterate, it just doesn't work anymore.
          Red_One
          • That is every business' strategy...

            Microsoft just had the tools and balls to make it happen with Billy boy behind the wheel.
            kstap
          • And the red ink.

            They can keep trying and you silly MS boys can keep revealing yourselves with your passionate support for your God, er, boss.
            NoMore MicrosoftEver