Windows Phone vNext Collateral Damage – A Developer Story…
I managed to get hooked into an interesting debate on Twitter yesterday regarding whether you’d advise someone you know to buy a Nokia Lumia 900 with WP8 just around the corner. This conversation stemmed from a local AU tech journalist awarding the device 5/10 in a review and then later mentioning that the impending release of WP8 was justification for this score – not that the device was that bad). The discussion touched on a fundamental topic I’ve had burning in the back of my brain for some time now – surrounding the impact of Microsoft’s Windows Phone vNext announcements on the existing Windows Phone market.
Apple vs Microsoft vNext Announcements..
While progress and new device/platform announcements are generally an exciting thing – we’ve seen a fairly important differentiation between how Microsoft and Apple execute these with respect to their Phone platforms + hardware.
In most cases – Apple keeps announcements completely secret right up until they hold a major news conference – and then when it’s announced – they demonstrate a finished product ready to sell – accompanied by clear and precise launch dates (normally very short time frames) – so customers know exactly what’s going on. Sure there’s a bunch of rumours leading up to these announcements – but generally they are very far off the mark and the public don’t take them seriously until the real announcement is made.
Microsoft Windows phone announcements on the other hand happen quite differently – in that major Windows Phone updates are announced a long time before they are released – and it’s the platform improvements that are shown off with an early reference device. In almost every case I’ve seen – there is no actual hardware announced – only vague release dates for handsets are given, which are normally a long way off (generally 3-9 months staggered across various regions). Then there’s a non stop barrage of rumours on what’s going to happen / be released – many turning out to be completely true as they generally come from very good sources.
For customers wanting to buy into either of the platforms – Apple’s way gives them a clear decision – ‘Buy vCurrent or wait until next month/week and get vNext’. Microsoft’s customers on the other hand are faced with the through process of ‘I’d like one of these now – but they did announce vNext was coming at some point soonish so I’d better wait until then’….
vNext versus the vCurrent App Publisher..
The problem for App developers is that they are only at any point making their revenue based on what’s out there right now and available to the general public – and due to the once off App ‘purchase for life’ model on Windows Phone 7.x – sales are very much pinned to how Windows Phone is doing at retail (and ultimately how many new customers are made available to them over time).
Unfortunately – every time the proverbial vNext carrot is dangled in front of the public – vCurrent handset sales stall – creating more confusion + bringing in less customers – and resulting in reduced App sales.
I’ve been deeply suspicious that this has been going on for a while – and thought I’d chart out my daily app sales in the Australian Marketplace versus the various major Windowsphone events related to me (such as vNext Announcements and then other events specific to me or to the AU Market).
Just to explain the numbers you are seeing above – these are the combined total of sales across all mobilewares.net Windows Phone 7 apps in the Australian Marketplace (from Early 2011 through to now). I’ve been lucky enough to have some of the top selling Apps in Australia over this period (including AU Weather Pro and also a bunch of AU focused Sports titles) – some of them I would like to consider to be ‘must have apps’ to Australians – and am confident a fairly consistent % of new users to the platform will purchase them.
I should also mention that my Apps ranking on the top (selling) charts in AU have been pretty much consistent for quite a while (AU Weather Pro has been top selling non XBLI title for a long time + the sports titles have been the top 3 ranked in their genre since launch) – so I’m also reasonably confident the quantity of Apps I sell is pretty relatively close to the trend other publishers in this region are seeing.
Due to the commercially sensitive nature of these actual figures – I’ve simply referred to the quantities with a unit system of ‘x’. Ie. ‘2x’ point on graph is exactly double the amount of units of ‘x’. The charted line is also a ‘line of best fit’ from the charts produced by the App Hub – the actually line per each day is a very zig-zaggy line – sometimes going below/above the line of best fit due to interim events (like having an App as the ‘featured app of the day’).
Also please note : This is not meant to be a scientific observation – I’m sure those that concern themselves with market predictions and analysis as their full time job have much more sophisticated metrics and models – I’m just going by what I have in front of me..
The Impact of vNext Announcements
From analysing my chart there’s a very obvious effect I’m seeing as a result of vNext announcements/leaks (denoted in the Red Callouts above) – App sales take a swift and sudden downward turn (which I’m very certain is a direct reflection on handset sales). The three significant events have been the Mango/7.5 announcements, the leaked WP8 announcements late April (indicating WP7 handsets would have no upgrade path to WP8) and then the nail in the coffin the official WP8 announcements in June.
I’ve also mapped out good/positive events on this timeline (denoted with green callouts) – such as new app launches from my company (which of course drive sales), handsets actually being released in AU – and major marketing initiatives namely the Nokia Lumia launch (which was accompanied by a lot of really well done TV advertising and public awareness campaigns).
The disappointing bit is that WP7 really looked like it was taking off this year with the Nokia launches – and was obvious traction was finally being gained. That sharp rise in market share was however killed with the WP8 announcements (and no actual firm dates for availability) – in an even more comprehensive manner then last years Mango announcements (even though it took Australian’s close on 10 months to actually get local Mango handsets it was only a few features being sacrificed and there was no threat of it being completely obsolete that we face today).
The really bad news for devs… fragmentation is coming to a market near you…
While It’s not hard to deduce that things are not going well for Windows Phone platform (market share wise) – I’m pretty certain things are going to get quite worse in the short to medium term – particularly for App developers. When Windows Phone 7 appeared and up to now – Microsoft’s overall market share of the phone market hasn’t changed all that much – and what’s slowly happened is the % of WinMo 6.x users versus WP7 users has slowly changed (to today when the WinMo users are only a small percentage – many of them actually going to a different platform altogether).
I think it’s quite possible we may see the same transition happen with WP7 > WP8 users (with not that much change for Microsoft’s overall Smartphone market share) – so for a developer this fragmentation is not great news. Apps designed for WP7 will be faced with a potential user base that’s contracting quite rapidly (of which this started a few months ago) – and apps designed for WP8 will need to wait quite a while for enough customers to appear.
Although not a 100% certainty – my gut feel is that customers purchasing Apps on WP8 won’t be that keen to shell out for WP7 titles (even though they ‘will work’) – and instead will wait for WP8 Apps which take full advantage of the platform/resolution and features. I’d be interested to see what the game sales figures were for consoles which provided legacy support (such as the PS2 allowing PS1 titles to be used) – sure many ‘existing’ owners would have been happy – but doubt many rushed out to buy new PS1 titles to use on their PS2.
As someone who has invested a lot in the Windows phone Silverlight/.NET platform – I’d really hoped to get several years out of the code, designs and infrastructure I’d put together for my Apps (which I’d thought would eventually make the investment worthwhile) – however being faced with starting again from scratch is daunting – not to mention risky as there’s no guarantee Microsoft won’t decide in a year or so that WinRT is also going to be superseded with something else. Having done quite a bit of WinRT work already (for Windows 8) – I also know first hand that porting/migrating apps from SL on WP7 is not the simple task it’s claimed to be (as the XAML/layout is so different you really need to start from scratch to make experiences which customers really want).
I do realize Microsoft really did need to do a ‘reboot’ on their entire Smartphone strategy – however this many reboots and poorly timed announcements and leaks is not a great thing. Their actual development platform is so much better then anything else on offer (Android/iOS development environment feels like taking a step back into the 90’s) – but without a worthwhile market for devs to sell Apps to – it’s a hard to justify it.
The one shining light is that the Win8 market is hotting up and will help many developers subsidize their WP8 titles by sharing technologies – but time will tell on whether it pans out this way or those devs just focus on Win8 only. I’m still very much undecided on these counts myself – and while I know I’m sure I will release some Apps for WP8 – I doubt it will get the same energy I once gave WP7 – and my focus will be mainly on Windows 8.