Your phone is only an app container

Your phone is only an app container

Summary: Hardware specs = irrelevant. OS features = meh. Useful apps available = everything. Microsoft needs to liberate its cash hoard and get the same critical apps available to iOS and Android users as soon as possible.


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 (are hardware specs dead?) 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.

Topics: Mobile OS, Microsoft, Mobility


Howard spent 14 years in the tech industry working as a programmer, evangelist, and community manager for Microsoft. In 2009, he had lived his "dream" of middle-management long enough and opened a Japanese restaurant called Standing Sushi Bar. Trading in stock grants and software licenses for raw fish and cash, he enjoys mixing his passion for technology into the daily hustle of small business.

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  • But the OS is very relevant

    For me the phone OS has become more about apps and services. These services may be a unique app or built into an app function or suite.
    I use a lot of Google services. In this aspect the OS is extremely relevant.
  • Demise of blackberry

    This is one of the main reasons I left blackberry. The lack of key apps like viber and skype, which I'm using now almost every day (although whatsapp worked just fine) But there are also other aspects for choosing a phone, like keyboard, price, speed, size, camera, battery-life, customer support etc. If you're only looking at the very top end of the market where all specs and design are similar, then key apps become the point of differentiation.
    • Top of the market

      Yeah, I guess I was looking primarily at the "flagship" phones for the different Mobile OS providers. That's where I think the apps available become the main differentiator as most of the hardware specs are similar.
  • I disagree...

    Ever since I started using computers, I prefer to use built-in OS features over apps. The integration is far superior. Apps are really a waste of time on a phone if the OS already contains some proper features. At the end of the day, it's just a phone. I only need it to do so much.
    • OS features

      All the mobile OS's are offering similar functionality at this point. So assume the features are the same then wouldn't apps be the main differentiator? If you're not going to use apps and only utilize the core OS features then there's no point to have a smartphone.
  • "Your phone is only an app container" - its not.

    The OS and platform matters the most and not some shiT*y apps.

    - WhatsApp launches like any other app on my WP phone, about 5 seconds to get to the conversation screen.
    • WhatsApp

      I wonder if my WhatsApp took so long because of the amount of contacts on my phone. Regardless 5 seconds to get into a message versus 1 second starts adding up quickly. Can you elaborate on why the OS and platform matter the most?
  • Not quite right

    The OS enables the rest. The hardware makes it run at an acceptable speed. If what you are saying were true, there would never be a need to upgrade the hardware. We know this is not true.
    • Hardware and OS

      Yes, the OS enables the applications to be built on top of it and the hardware makes it run. I'm saying that with the current generation of top-of-the-line smartphones the hardware and operating system features are all similar so the main differentiator is the apps.
  • Your phone is only an app container

    "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."

    That is exactly what they are doing. They are giving the top 100 developers early access to the SDK so that the Windows Store has the apps everyone would need. Plus with it being Microsoft you know their developer tools are going to be top notch.
    Loverock Davidson-
    • Developers

      For sure the developer tools will be top notch and there are many talented developers working on applications for the platform. However are they getting the existing key applications that are popular on iOS and Android to also run on WP8?
  • The OS is important

    I agree that the apps are important but the OS allows apps to be used in a most important way. Think about Android Share. It allows all apps to plug in to essential OS level integration. Apple picks and chooses this process. I want my apps to be able to use as default whenever I want them to.
  • Ummm...

    Hardware = very important. Os features = critical. Usefull apps available = inevitable!
    Scott Cappellani