Microsoft Tweaks Windows Phone Store Design to Boost Mobile Comeback

Microsoft has refined the design of its Windows Phone stores to bring in as many customers, developers and applications through the doors as possible to support its comeback in the mobile market.

Microsoft is tweaking the design of its Windows Phone Store to draw users and generate sales as it strives to catch up with competing mobile device makers who are way ahead in terms of both market share and in the number of applications they have for sale.

Microsoft needs to make the most of the Windows Phone 8 platform because sales of WP8 devices add up to only a 2 percent share of the smartphone market, versus 14.9 percent for iOS and 75 percent for Android, according to third quarter figures from IDC. Furthermore, the Windows Phone Store has only about 120,000 apps, versus 675,000 for Android and 975,000 for Apple.

However, Windows Phone sales are growing faster than the others and the Windows Phone Store is “adding hundreds of new apps every day,” said Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president for Microsoft, at the Windows Phone 8 launch event Oct. 29.

Microsoft added a few new features to Windows Phone Store to make it easier for users to find apps and developers to sell them. Among the features is Collections, in which apps are assembled into groups based on type. Some of the collections include apps that are particularly popular or famous, including game, shopping, weather or travel and even relatively obscure topics such as astronomy.

Which apps get into Collections is decided by Microsoft curators who choose which among them is the best, wrote Mazhar Mohammed, director of program management at Microsoft, in a Nov. 7 blog post.

“When making their picks, these in-house curators take into account everything from quality to local calendars to customs, so the apps you see depend on both when and where you’re browsing,” Mohammed wrote.

Windows Phone Store also promotes certain apps that users might like with a feature called “Picks for You.” Based on the Bing search engine, Picks for You shows personalized app recommendations based on things such as what the user has downloaded in the past, what their Facebook friends downloaded, and what apps are typically downloaded together.

The store also promotes apps that are the “Best Rated” or that are “New and Rising,” meaning they have become suddenly popular.

The design of the store is important for helping users find apps and for developers to make theirs easy to find, said Carolina Milanesi, vice president for consumer technologies research at Gartner.

“Consumers need to be able to find their way around the store, find what they need and easily pay for it in a fashion that they feel comfortable with. For developers a well organized store means easy discovery for apps, which is what they all want,” Milanesi said.

Payment options for buyers include Microsoft Wallet, which allows a user to securely store credit or debit card or PayPal account information. Other shoppers can still have purchases charged to their wireless carrier monthly bill.

In one sense, the low inventory of Windows Phone Store compared to its rivals may actually help developers because with fewer products, each developer’s apps are more likely to stand out, said Michael Gartenberg, another Gartner mobile analyst.

As Microsoft seeks to lure users and developers with its currently limited inventory, it has to make the most of the apps it has in stock, Gartenberg added. It’s also not enough just to offer the most popular apps like Angry Birds, Twitter or Facebook, but to also find unique apps that certain groups of users would like.

“[Microsoft needs] the apps that are maybe not important to everyone in the world but are very important to me as a consumer and I want to make sure that those things are going to be available,” Gartenberg said. “That’s not a simple task for them to accomplish.”

It’s been said that Microsoft is in a chicken-and-egg situation in that consumers may be unwilling to buy a WP8 device until there are more apps to run on them, while developers don’t want to develop apps until there are more handsets on which their apps can run. Gartenberg calls that “an old story that pretty much any platform has to be able to solve.”

The television industry faced a similar dilemma as high-definition television (HDTV) became widely available over the past decade. Broadcasters were reluctant to invest in expensive HDTV equipment if there weren’t enough HDTVs in people’s homes and consumers weren’t willing to pay for more expensive HDTV sets if there wasn’t enough HDTV programming.

Eventually, broadcasters presented highly-rated live events in HD such as the Super Bowl or the Olympics and retailers promoted the sales of HDTVs to watch those events, said Gartenberg.

“Today, you don’t even think about going out and buying an HDTV. It’s just a TV,” he said.