What Microsoft Can Learn from Apple
Microsoft's Phone Marketplace Could Risk Apple Pitfalls
Microsoft is outlining the policies for Windows Phone Marketplace at its TechEd Conference in New Orleans, hoping that third-party developers will be encouraged to build mobile applications for the platform when it debuts on a variety of devices later in 2010. Those policies include the inevitable bans on controversial content, similar to those enacted by Apple with its popular App Store, and which could cause Microsoft similar headaches if the controversy erupts over what constitutes an "appropriate" app.
Windows Phone Marketplace will tie heavily into Windows Phone 7, the upcoming smartphone operating system that Microsoft is positioning as a total revamp of its mobile franchise. Over the past several quarters, Microsoft has been losing ground to fierce competitors in the space, including Google Android and the Apple iPhone; Windows Phone 7, which forgoes those rivals' "pages of mobile apps" user interface in favor of subject-specific "Hubs" that aggregate Web content and applications, is being designed to wrest back market share through a slick design and wide variety of functions.
But as Apple has proven with the iPhone, a vital component in a smartphone's success with businesses and consumers is its third-party apps. Apple's App Store is considered a key attractant for both users in need of ever-new games and applications, and developers seeking to sell those programs.
Microsoft seems intent on making applications-and, by extension, third-party developers-front and center of its Windows Phone Marketplace and Windows Phone 7 paradigm, according to the news filtering from TechEd.
"We introduced our first Marketplace eight months ago and have already shown that there is demand for an app store that is both customer-centric and developer friendly," Brandon Watson, Microsoft's director of developer experience for Windows Phone 7, wrote in a June 7 posting on The Windows Blog. "Marketplace is evolving to give people a great selection of beautiful apps for Windows Phone 7."
The blog posting seems to offer a not-so-subtle dig at Apple, which has encountered some controversy over its review and approval policies for apps: "At the same time, we're giving developers the respect they deserve in our use of transparent and uniform policies that still give developers the necessary information and flexibility to explore creative sales and marketing models."
In sum, the new Windows Phone Marketplace policies include an annual $99 registration fee, the ability to submit five free apps per registration (rising to $19.99 each, after that) along with an unlimited number of paid apps, a revenue share of 70/30, and an ability to publish to all available Marketplace markets.
Policies also include an optional push notification service for developers, the ability to manage Marketplace business via a self-service portal, and a new optional Trial API. "Trials mean more customers try your app," Watson wrote, "and less likelihood that they return it. The length or type of trial is fully controlled by the developer."
A full list of policies can be found here, on Microsoft's Windows Phone for Developers Website.
What Microsoft Can Learn from Apple
That site includes a PDF document, "Windows Phone 7 Application Certification Requirements," that breaks down Microsoft's content policies when it comes to mobile applications. Nothing banned by that paper seems terribly surprising; in addition to forbidding apps that are libelous, slanderous, threatening or discriminatory, Microsoft also bans apps that somehow promote hate speech or the use of illegal drugs and excessive alcohol consumption.
Under the "Adult Related Content" section, the inevitable bans are likewise placed on nudity and violence, including "People or creatures on fire." Interestingly, other applications storefronts-including the App Store-feature several popular games with splattery, fiery content; whether Microsoft will be more lax in admitting violence in that context into its own ecosystem remains to be seen, although being too stringent risks alienating certain popular developers.
But if Windows Phone 7 proves popular, it could create a situation for Microsoft similar to that confronting Apple. With its own heady success in the consumer space, Apple has seen its App Store expand rapidly, with research firm IDC predicting some 300,000 apps available through the online storefront by the end of 2011-but that has also brought pressure on Apple to better regulate and police its content.
In February, several third-party developers found their explicit apps banned from the store. According to a Feb. 18 report on TechCrunch, developer Jon Atherton received an e-mail signed by "iPhone App Review" stating that one of his applications contained "Content that we had originally believed to be suitable for distribution. However, we have recently received numerous complaints from our customers about this type of content, and have changed our guidelines appropriately."
In a Feb. 22 article in The New York Times, Apple's head of worldwide product marketing Philip Schiller confirmed that the company had been receiving complaints from some groups who found content "getting too degrading and objectionable" and decided to pull those apps from the store. At the same time, however, Apple allowed adult-themed apps from established entities such as Sports Illustrated to remain in the App Store.
At the time, Apple justified its actions via a clause in the iPhone SDK agreement, which states, "Applications must not contain any obscene, pornographic, offensive or defamatory content or materials of any kind."
But it also caused a minor furor among developers, who questioned the consistency of Apple's policies and bans on certain applications. That history suggests the potential minefields that exist for Microsoft as it gears up its own app-policing apparatus. While Watson made a nod in the blog post to transparency-something that third-party developers accused Apple of lacking-the true test will come when Microsoft finds itself confronted with apps that fall into a potential gray area, such as when Apple rejected a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist's app from the App Store for satirizing political figures, found itself slapped by protests, and then had to ask that the app be submitted.
The time for such decisions could be fast approaching. In a June 8 posting on his personal blog, "Many Niches," Watson reported that Microsoft will "start putting phones into select developers' hands next month," particularly those who have invested in Silverlight and .NET platforms, registered at Windows Phone Marketplace and begun their app-building process. Windows Phone 7 devices are scheduled to roll out to the general public at an as-yet-unannounced date near the end of 2010.