How close is Windows Phone to closing the "app gap"?

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
How close is Windows Phone to closing the "app gap"?
As we look to 2014, it is a good time to take a look at how far Windows Phone has come. Android is undoubtedly the king of the mobile market, and iOS is still strong as ever, but Windows Phone has been continually making gains and proving itself as a proper third pillar in the mobile world. Microsoft and more specifically Joe Belfiore have made some bold statements about the platform, and how it is going to close the "app gap" in 2014. 

It has been a while since I have been able to really dig into the Windows Phone platform and see how things are going. Early last year, I decided to live with Windows Phone for a couple months in order to really get a feel for the platform, but I ultimately came back to Android. A couple weeks ago, I picked up a Nokia Lumia 1520 to freshen up, and the first thing I wanted to look into are Microsoft's recent claims that the platform is quickly closing the "app gap".

The first thing I did was install Microsoft's own "Switch to Windows Phone" app on my Moto X to see what Microsoft would suggest as far as apps. Out of the 119 apps on my Moto X (not counting Motorola apps, settings, apps that can't exist on Windows Phone like SwiftKey, and stock apps like Phone), Microsoft claimed to have found 89 matches, which is a pretty solid number. Unfortunately, once I started looking at the list itself it became clear that the term "match" was being used quite liberally. For example, Microsoft wanted to claim that The Sims 3 was a match for a calendar app, Pageonce was a match for Verizon FiOS, DIRECTV was a match for another Verizon FiOS app, and Wells Fargo was a match for Citizens Bank. 

Things got worse before they got better once I actually dove into the Windows Phone Store, because some apps, like NBA Game Time, weren't available for my device; and, many "apps" were really nothing more than HTML wrappers that pointed to mobile websites. If you're switching to Windows Phone, always be wary of an app that is 1MB or smaller, and always check the screenshots. And of course, there is still the Google issue.

The Google issue


Whether you like it or not, you can't really start a conversation about the app ecosystem on Windows Phone without talking about Google. Luckily, the problems may not be as bad as you have been hearing. Obviously, if you live a Google life, you'll be disappointed with the offerings overall; but frankly, why are you choosing Windows Phone if you live a Google life? On the other hand, if you just need a couple major Google services (namely YouTube and Gmail), you may be surprised at what you can find on Windows Phone. 

It has been widely covered that Google is not putting resources into building apps for Windows Phone, because Google says that the platform doesn't yet have enough users to warrant the effort. It's the same reason why Google used to make apps for BlackBerry, but doesn't make apps for BlackBerry 10, and why we shouldn't expect to see official Google apps for new platforms like Tizen, Ubuntu Phone, or Jolla (not counting official apps taken from the Google Play Store, which can be run on some new platforms). 

Because of this, the vast majority of Google "apps" that you'll find in the Windows Phone Store are just HTML wrappers of the mobile websites. There are some notable exceptions though. While there is no official YouTube app, there is one unofficial app that is just as good, if not better than what you would find in an official app. YouTube HD is one of the few apps that doesn't just point you to m.youtube.com but gives you a proper Metro interface, makes it easy to get to your subscriptions, playlists, etc. And, there is even an option to download videos to watch offline, which was reportedly a big reason why Microsoft's YouTube app was blocked by Google. Although, it should be noted that because of Windows Phone's restrictions on background activity, large downloads will be interrupted quite a bit. Otherwise, there are also solid YouTube apps like MetroTube, which is one of the longest supported YouTube apps on the platform, and myTube which allows you to play YouTube as audio only and keep it on in the backgrounds. You certainly wouldn't get that in an official YouTube app, and while downloading videos and audio only are rumored to be coming to Android, we haven't seen it yet.

Additionally, there is a new app called MetroMail, which looks like a very promising option for Gmail. The stock mail app doesn't handle Gmail tags very well, and once again most apps you'll find just point you to m.gmail.com. MetroMail gives you a proper Metro UI with customizations so you can set which labels are shown (including the new Social, Updates, and Promotions auto-labels). It has Live Tile support and all. It is still a bit buggy - long press menus didn't really work for me - but it is getting constant support from the developer. The only downside is that it will cost you $1.49 and there is no free trial option, but that's a small price to pay for a quality app that you're likely to put into heavy use if you're a Gmail user. 

Beyond those two apps, pickings get slim, but at the same time I would again have to question why one would really need more than just Gmail and YouTube if you're going to be using Windows Phone. If you're going to choose a Microsoft platform, you should expect that the best experience will come from simply going all the way and using Microsoft services. Switch your files and photos to SkyDrive, your music to Xbox Music, use Bing/Nokia Maps, Bing search, and maybe Skype for messaging. If you stop expecting to find all Google all the time (which is what you should expect with Android), you'll be pleasantly surprised at what you can get on Windows Phone.

The viable alternatives and official apps


To be clear, I'm not asking anyone to lower their expectations when looking into Windows Phone. Rather, the key is to remember that just because something isn't an official app doesn't necessarily mean that it is worse. Just look at Twitter on literally every platform on the market right now - the official Twitter app is most often not the best Twitter app available. On Android, you have options like Plume and Carbon, iOS has Tweetbot, and Windows Phone has options like Mehdoh. The official Twitter app for Windows Phone isn't terrible, but what had been regarded as the best - Rowi - recently shut down because it hit the Twitter token limit. But, Mehdoh has some of the advanced features you would expect from a 3rd party Twitter app, like in-line photos and real-time streams; and, it has extra features like Instagram and Soundcloud integration. 

The point is that "unofficial" doesn't mean bad. And, especially when you're looking at the world of social media and messaging, there are definitely plenty of options on Windows Phone. For your messaging needs, you can get Skype, WhatsApp, LINE, WeChat, Kik, GroupMe, Viber, ChatOn, and Voxer. If you're more of a Snapchat user, there is 6snap, which is an unofficial but amazing Snapchat app from superstar developer Rudy Huyn. In addition to 6snap, Rudy Huyn makes 6sec (an unofficial Vine app) and 6tag (an unofficial Instagram app), both of which are more feature complete than the official Vine and Instagram apps available in the Windows Phone Store. 

Digging deeper on the social networking side of things, you have options for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, Omegle, and Foursquare (both an official app and the unofficial 4th and Mayor, which is a great app). If you're in the dating scene, you've got options for Plentyoffish, Badoo, Match.com, and Bender. In the entertainment options, you can find Netflix, Flixster, IMDb, Hulu Plus, Spotify, Pandora, Shazam, TuneIn Radio, SoundHound, Plex, VEVO, and more. Best of all is that many of these apps have relatively high user review scores (with the notable exception of Spotify, because that app doesn't yet support the streaming radio feature.) Moving into other categories, there is a Waze app, PayPal, Mint, Evernote and solid options for various services that many may consider required apps for a mobile device like Pocket, Reddit, and Feedly (the best of which are Squirrel, Baconit/Readit, and Nextgen Reader respectively). 

Ultimately, it is really hard to say that the Windows Phone app ecosystem is lacking the major app types that you would want. Where you could still run into trouble is when you absolutely need to have a specific app, which may not have a counterpart in the Windows Phone world. The Windows Phone Store recently passed 200,000 apps, which is quite a large number all things considered. Obviously, it doesn't compare well to iOS or Android, where the app stores are over 1 million each, but 200,000 should still be enough to cover most of your needs.

The real "app gap" is in games


But, "most" isn't all, so there definitely is still an app gap right now. As I mentioned, a big portion of that gap will be in the form of specific apps that you may need on a relatively constant basis. Personally, the only apps that I would normally use regularly that I can't find on Windows Phone amount to Google+, Google Books, and a few banking apps. That's really about it when it comes to apps. 

For banking, you'd better have Chase, Bank of America, or Wells Fargo, or you're out of luck. And, as mentioned above, if you're as deep into the Google ecosystem as I am to be using Google+ and Google Books on a daily basis, Windows Phone may not be the best option for you anyway. Even so, the mobile websites for each of those has worked well in a pinch. I don't get the advanced features like annotating a book, or Auto Uploading of media to Google+, but I'm not completely shut off from the products; and, it's easy enough to grab the auto-uploaded media from SkyDrive and put what I want to on Google+ once I'm back on my home computer. 

You'll notice that the whole time I haven't yet used the word "games" when talking about what you should expect to find in the Windows Phone Store. I've done this for a couple of reasons that all mostly boil down to games being a much more divisive topic than apps. First, games are more dependent on being official than apps. Using 6tag instead of the official Instagram app isn't that big of a deal, especially since 6tag is objectively a far better and more complete app at this point. But, no one wants to play a clone game (like AE Fruit Slash, which is a clone that is higher on the top lists than the original Fruit Ninja), because it either misses out on a key element of the original game, or completely misses the point. For example, no one would want to play "Candy Village" instead of "Candy Crush" (assuming you would want to play either one in the first place), because it removes the entire social element to the game that is both the best and worst part about the game (depending on which side of the Facebook request you happen to be on). 

Second, gaming is a very personal choice. Some people refuse to play games on mobile all together. Some only play fairly casual games. Some like to find the indie gems, or stick mostly with the AAA titles. Personally, I don't really do a lot of gaming on my smartphone aside from a few casual games. I am far more likely to either play a game on my PS3, or on my tablet than I am on my phone; and, it's not even really a close race there, the PS3 is well ahead of the tablet, which is well ahead of the smartphone. 

Lastly, if you do play a fair amount of games on your mobile device, you may want the newest games as quickly as possible, because you've already played the games that have been out a while. This is where you're likely to hit something of a roadblock with Windows Phone. While there are quite a few good games for the platform, the newest of the new tend to come to Windows Phone last, and the delay could be quite a long one. For example, Temple Run 2 and Subway Surfers only just recently made their debuts on the platform in the last few months. Windows Phone has a couple quality exclusive games thanks to the power of Microsoft and Xbox, but Halo: Spartan Assault probably won't be enough to sustain you, unless you want to drop $16 on Final Fantasy III. 

If you were to just glance at the top games on Windows Phone compared to Android, you might think that there was a fair amount of parity. The vast majority of the top games on Windows Phone are very casual games, like Despicable Me: Minion Rush, Subway Surfers, Temple Run 2, and Angry Birds. You'd see known games like Where's My Perry?, Flow, or Frozen Free Fall. And, there are some quality Gameloft games, if that's your style, like Asphalt 8, Modern Combat 4, Real Soccer 2013, and Total Conquest.

But, more likely than not, you'll run out of quality games before you run out of apps that you need. You can try digging down into the specific categories for games, but you'll notice very quickly that the vast majority of the games fall into the Action/Adventure (aka endless runner) category, while most of the other categories are very thin. You certainly won't find any indie gems like Badland, A Ride into the Mountains, Plague Inc, Superbrothers Sword & Sorcery, or Dots; and, you won't even find big name titles like Plants v Zombies 2 or Grand Theft Auto. The games that you do find, like FIFA are likely last year's version, and not the newest option. 

Conclusion


At the end of the day, Microsoft could well be right in saying that the "app gap" will be closed in the coming year. On the app side of things, Windows Phone is already pretty close. It needs more apps to cover specific users in cases like banking apps, but the base has been set and will only continue to improve. Once the current set of official apps can catch up to the quality found in the unofficial apps, it is likely that more services will look at Windows Phone more highly. And, assuming Windows Phone continues its steady climb in platform market share, it seems likely that it will soon be widely considered the third major mobile platform (in the few places that don't yet think that). 

Given Microsoft's dominance of the desktop gaming market and strong brand recognition and success with Xbox, it is surprising that gaming is really where Windows Phone falls down. It seems like developers are pushing games to Windows RT more these days, and that could trickle down to Windows Phone. Additionally, the Windows Phone GDR3 update, which added support for quad-core processors, 1080p displays, and screen sizes in the 5 to 9-inch range could be a big step towards getting higher quality games on the platform. 

But, ultimately, the perceived "app gap" isn't going to be what holds back Windows Phone. Regular app developers are already making the move. Now, it is up to Microsoft to not just prove that developers are coming, but that game makers can make money on the platform. That can be a tricky situation, as we saw with Android, where game developers don't come because they don't think there is money to be made, but the lack of games is what leads to revenue totals being lower. Once developers see the revenue potential, or rather create that potential, we should see the game market for Windows Phone make a leap, and that will fully close the "app gap".

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