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Don’t Fear the Windows Phone App Apocalypse

Two seemingly unrelated Windows Phone developer stories this week—a revelation by Microsoft that its Windows Phone apps approval process has gotten too slow as developer submissions have ramped up, and an announcement about the end of the ChevronWP7 Labs “experiment”—are, I think, very much related. And they together suggest that, despite stammering from an unbelieving and Apple-centric press, that Windows Phone has indeed crossed a critical apps acceptance milestone.

To frame this discussion, a bit of background: Nokia this week launched its flagship Windows Phone 7.5 handset, the Lumia 900. Everyone really likes it. But the one straw man argument that virtually all reviewers mentioned last week is that Windows Phone’s app library—an astonishing 80,000 apps strong—is somehow a liability. And that’s because the iPhone and Android both have hundreds of thousands of apps.

Windows Phone cheerleaders, like Mac users before them, will try to make a cheap “quality over quantity” argument. As much as I love Windows Phone, that’s simply not true: There are as many crappy Windows Phone apps, percentage wise, as there are similarly horrible apps for iPhone and Android.

No, my contention is simple. There are already more than enough apps on Windows Phone right now, both in volume and quality, and while the same exact iPhone and Android apps are not always available on Windows Phone—critics point to classic examples like Instagram and Pandora—the available alternatives are not just acceptable but are in fact excellent. (Fhotoroom and wpFandora, respectively. Look ‘em up.)

Put simply, there are legitimate complaints. And then there are faux complaints like the supposed lack of apps on Windows Phone.

So back to this week’s news stories.

First, ChevronWP7 Labs, since I know the principle developer, Rafael Rivera, and have been talking with him about this pending change for a long time. In a post to the organization’s web site, ChevronWP7 Labs this week explained that after selling 10,000 “developer unlock tokens” to enthusiast developers who were looking to get into Windows Phone development inexpensively—Chevron’s tokens cost just $10 vs. the $100 per year Microsoft charges for an AppHub membership—it is “closing.” That is, they will not be offering any more tokens.

The real reason for this change is simple: Microsoft couldn’t see the value in the service. Sure, 10,000 lucky people were able to developer unlock their phones very inexpensively, and open them up to homebrew apps. But there was no clear upsell for converting these users to paying AppHub members. That is, it’s not clear that many of the customers were actually developers. Which was the point of this whole thing, really.

Microsoft is doing the right thing by providing free AppHub memberships to everyone who did purchase a ChevronWP7 Labs token, a $99 value that all those people should be cheering. But the very fact that 10,000 people actually found out about this service and used it tells me that there is in fact a huge groundswell of support for a Windows Phone developer program that costs less—a lot less—than $99 a year. You know, something for enthusiasts.

So if Microsoft really wants to do the right thing, it should offer a “Lite” or “Amateur” version of the program that offers everything but the ability to submit apps for the Marketplace. (The key functionality here is the ability for all developers to run their own apps on actual phone hardware.) It should be free or super-cheap, like CheveronWP7.

Point being, the discontinuation of ChevronWP7 seems like bad news, but the fact that these guys sold 10,000 tokens so quickly tells me there’s a lot of enthusiast interest in this platform. You know, contrary to what everyone is telling you.

And then we have the latest Microsoft announcement, which sort of drives home this point. In a post to the Windows Phone Blog yesterday, Microsoft’s Todd Brix made an interesting admission: App Hub, he says, is experiencing “growing pains.” That is, as the rate of app submissions has risen dramatically in recent months, the underlying backend systems are straining under the pressure. It’s taking too long to get apps to market.

 “In three months the number of apps in Marketplace has grown by 60 percent, to nearly 80,000,” he writes. “During that period we’ve also nearly doubled the number of customer stores around the world, so there are now 54 markets to sell your apps. The addition of so many new markets and apps so quickly has slowed our backend systems.”

Microsoft has plans to fix the problem. Short term, it will shore up its current infrastructure with more capacity and a streamlining of the apps submission process. Long term, the company is developing a “more robust and scalable Marketplace service that will ... pave the way for the even more rapid growth we’re expecting in the years ahead.”

But stated plainly, Windows Phone does in fact have a problem. There are simply too many apps.

When I think about the things that need to change with Windows Phone—and there are plenty of them, believe me—I worry about things like pervasive, iCloud-style backup and restore of everything on the phone, support for higher resolution (and, yes, higher pixel density) screens, and true, PC-free functionality for photos, music, videos, and other content. You know, things that would positively impact the platform and really make a difference to actual users.

You know what I never worry about? The supposed lack of apps.

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