Microsoft Is Bringing Its Army Of Windows Developers Over To Windows Phone

New Project Starts, Microsoft vs RIM

Photo: Flurry Analytics

This morning, Microsoft confirmed what we’ve known since February (and what Steve Ballmer accidentally let slip last November): the next version of its Windows Phone smartphone platform will be based on the same core technology as Windows 8.This is a smart move because it makes it easier for Microsoft’s army of Windows developers to build apps for its much less popular mobile platform as well. The network effect that matters in mobile is the developer network effect, not the user network effect — the more developers are building apps, the more users they attract.

Developer Interest in Mobile Platforms

Photo: Appcelerator

Outsiders have tended to underestimate Microsoft in this space. From its long history building personal computer operating systems, the company understands platform wars and developers, and it has huge resources it can put to bear on this problem.

Even before it announced this shift, Windows Phone was seeing surprising momentum among developers — 6% of all new mobile project starts in April 2012 were on Windows Phone, according to Flurry, up from 1% a year ago. (See chart 1.) Overall, developer interest on Windows Phone has remained fairly stable through the last two quarters, even as it’s been falling for Android and BlackBerry. (Chart 2.)

This is despite the fact that Windows Phone’s market share remains stubbornly stuck below 2%.

By the way, Microsoft isn’t leaving current apps out in the cold — all apps that run on Windows Phone 7.5 (the “Mango” update introduced in fall 2011) will run on Windows Phone 8, with no porting or extra work required.

However, users will not get the upgrade — they’ll have to buy a new phone. That’s a bummer for Microsoft’s current Windows Phone customers, but makes sense for the company, given how few Windows Phones have been sold so far.

So What’s Changing, Exactly?
Here’s some deeper background on what’s changing.

Until now, Microsoft’s mobile operating system has been built on Windows CE, which is fundamentally different from the Windows NT kernel that its desktop operating systems run on. Developers could use some of the same technology to program for CE, but programs were not easily portable from one platform to the other.

With Windows Phone 8, developers will be able to take programs they’ve already written for the Windows 8 “Metro” interface — the touch screen interface that will be a big part of Windows 8 and Windows RT, and will be featured prominently on Microsoft Surface tablets and tablets from its PC partners — and move them to Windows Phone 8 with much less work.

During the press event announcing Windows Phone 8, product leader Joe Belfiore talked frequently about “shared code,” and other execs laid out the basic idea of how developers can create for both platforms at once. (For apps, they can use a technology called XAML; for games, Direct 3D and some custom C/C++ code for each platform. Developers can also use the same Microsoft developer product, Visual Studio 7.5, to create for both platforms.)

To be clear, it’s not a DIRECT port — a Windows 8 app won’t work on Windows Phone, or vice versa, and there are some development technologies that will only work on one platform or the other.

But the move could attract some traditional Windows developers who haven’t seen any reason to make apps for Windows Phone so far.

Conclusion
Microsoft has announced two huge strategic shifts this week related to mobile — it’s building PCs for the first time, and it’s unifying its PC and smartphone platforms.

Takeaways:

  • Microsoft knows that it has a huge problem in mobile, and is disrupting its old ways of thinking in order to fix the problem.
  • But rather than betting more heavily on an all-new mobile platform as Apple did with iOS, Microsoft is making traditional Windows the centre of its entire strategy — from PC to tablet to smartphone.
  • This is the only move that makes business sense for Microsoft, given the huge installed base and popularity of Windows.
  • However, it’s also a huge risk — if customers don’t like Windows 8 (which is a huge and jarring shift, and needs some more thought and polish), Microsoft could end up alienating its current customers without attracting new ones.

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