On July 19, Microsoft began shipping out thousands of Windows Phone 7 (WP7) test units from LG and Samsung -- running a near-final Technical Preview build of its new mobile operating system -- to developers all over the world.
It's crunch time for the Softies. They have developed a new phone platform from scratch that looks and feels different from what's available from Apple, Android backers and RIM. They've built it, but will developers come? Microsoft is counting on its developer tools, its developer outreach programs and developer guarantees (in the form of payments if WP7 apps don't sell as well as expected) to generate quantity and quality WP7 apps.
It's no coincidence, as Engadget notes, that the packaging for the WP7 test units says "developers, developers, developers" on the box. (Sorry, there's no Monkey Boy toy inside.) WP7 phone hardware and data plans are going to be key to determining how well WP7 will do versus its competition when those phones begin shipping in October in Europe and November in the U.S. But the number and kinds of apps that developers build are going to be make-or-break, as well.
There's an evangelism team that's been working for months to get developers on board with WP7. I've been talking to a number of them for the past few weeks so as to understand their big-picture goals and plans to try to win developers hearts and minds in a world where Windows Mobile is falling out of favor and iOS and Android are grabbing the attention and share.
Charlie Kindel, a 20-year Microsoft veteran who runs the Windows Phone Developer Experience, is one of the main forces behind Microsoft's mobile developer outreach. After hearing about Microsoft's renewed focus on mobile (and some of the big names named to run the development side of the project), Kindel joined the team in February 2009.
"Windows Phone is not an end game. It's more of a means," said Kindel. "Devs don't think about apps being just client code any more. Over the past ten years, it has become the case that the core resides in the cloud, and rich clients 'light it up' for the user. That means it's not so much about porting the same apps to different screens, it's more about creating application components that cross all three screens. As your experience changes, what should an app look like and how do you eanble that? I want to make WP7 one of the screens that is supported."
(The "cloud," in this case, can mean Microsoft cloud services like Azure; cloud services someone else has built like Twitter; or services intrinsic to WP7, like notification, location, Xbox Live, etc., Kindel explained.)
I asked Kindel what has surprised him -- and what he thinks might surprise others -- about WP7. He talked about speaking to 7,000 mobile developers during a recent European tour. Relatively few had ever used Microsoft developer tools. (In one meeting, only about 10 percent had used Microsoft tools of any kind, he said.) When Microsoft showed them Visual Studio and Windows Phone development tools, "the reaction was one of disbelief," he said, because "our tools were so much better."
"Developers want to use the tools they already know, but at the same time, they want to know someone has thought holistically about the end-to-end process," Kindel said. "Even though we are investing in all of these (development) areas, you don't have to use all of our stuff."
Microsoft's message to developers considering WP7 is to use Silverlight or the XNA Framework to write applications and games for the forthcoming phones. And company officials are touting the transparency of the app approval process, as well as the fact that only Microsoft-certified applications will be available via the Windows Phone Marketplace as positives for developers and users.
No matter how good Microsoft's developer story sounds, Kindel knows that it's going to be tough to convince some developers there's enough financial opportunity to make the development of a WP7 app worthwhile.
"The installed market is not very big, so we have to show them how much we're investing to create a phenomenal user experience. We have to show marketing and engineering seriousness," he said.
Microsoft hasn't made any promises as to how many WP7 phone apps there will be out of the gate, or provided many names of developers already committed to the platform. Kindel said to expect a mix of big-name apps and brand-new ones.
"There are a type of apps users just want to exist -- things like a service-enabled world clock or a level, for example," he said. "Then there are apps no one has really thought about yet, with unique capabilities. We want there to be fantastic and beautiful examples of each."
Who else is on Microsoft's WP7 developer outreach team? It's not just members of Microsoft's Communications Business. I've got a "who's who" post coming up, which includes WP7 developer team members from Microsoft's Interactive Entertainment Business, Windows Live and the Developer Division.
In the meantime, any developers (or potential customers) have developer-focused questions for the WP7 team?