The phone business
by Simon Bisson
Simon Bisson checks out the new business opportunities open to developers working with Windows Phone 8.
HardCopy Issue: 61 | Published: November 1, 2013
It’s a year since Microsoft unveiled Windows Phone 8, moving its phone platform from Windows CE to the NT kernel. It’s a change that’s given the platform a considerable boost, with new features and a rapidly growing user base, along with new development models that let you share code with Windows 8 and Windows Server. It’s now the number three platform in many geographies, so is it time to start building apps for Windows Phone?
Getting started with Windows Phone development doesn’t actually require much investment. The full Visual Studio IDE gives you an end-to-end development experience, but there’s also a free option in the shape Visual Studio Express and the Windows Phone SDK. This includes design tools for screen layouts, as well as code editing tools. If you’re developing games there’s even support for common gaming frameworks, including Unity.
Inside Dev Center
The Windows Phone Dev Center is the heart of the developer experience, and it’s here you’ll find online help, tools for submitting apps to the store, and diagnostic information from your published apps. If you’re using Visual Studio then you can access the Dev Center directly from the IDE, and there’s direct access to SDKs, forums where you can talk to peers, and sample apps to get you started.
There’s deep integration with Microsoft’s pubCenter advertising platform, as well as the ability to share information with a Windows 8 Store account. Microsoft also makes it easier for you to get paid, with online tax forms and tools that let you run a PayPal account from your Dev Center dashboard. The dashboard gives you reports on how your apps are doing in the Store, letting you see your reviews and analyse downloads and usage.
Selling or distributing apps through the Windows Phone Store requires an annual fee, but Microsoft recently reduced it to $19. Once in the store your apps can be published globally, with access from 191 countries and regions and the option to set different prices for different regions (although some only allow you to publish free apps). That’s a significant portion of the globe, although it does mean you’ll need to internationalise your apps. The platform itself supports 50 languages, including right-to-left formatted and non-Roman. While internationalising code can take time, you can start with one or two languages and then slowly roll out support for additional markets based on market-penetration of your target devices.
While Window Phone 8 is the current release, there are still plenty of Windows Phone 7 devices out there. If you want to support both platforms, and the different screen layout options available with Windows 8, then you can generate multiple XAP files from Visual Studio and attach them to the same Store catalogue listing. This ensures users get the right version for their phone without you having to have multiple listings in the Store.
Microsoft now gives you some additional business models beyond free download, supported by advertising or purchased from the store. There’s options for try-before-you-buy and for in-app purchases which means you can take a free app, add extra features or downloadable content, and allow users to buy them from inside your app. Alternatively you can offer a limited time trial with the option to unlock the app for additional features. Typical downloadable content includes extra levels in games, templates for photography apps, and new icon sets or additional detail in mapping apps. Add such features regularly and an app that might have been a one off sale can become a continuing source of revenue. Furthermore Windows Phone 8’s in-app purchasing tools work with all the platform’s payment options.
Windows Phone and Windows 8.1
In the next version of Windows Phone, the Store might include some of the promotional features that comes with the Windows Store that comes with Windows 8.1, most of which are powered by Bing. Instead of one large and four small promotions in the Spotlight at the front of the Store, one large Spotlight promotion rotates through five apps. These might be big-name releases or small independent developers; according to Director of Program Management Ted Dworkin, the Store team is looking for “apps that do a great job on the platform.”
The other half of the opening screen is ‘Picks for you’, a custom Bing search that highlights top apps in categories you’ve already used, and apps that are popular with people who like the same apps as you. The Top Paid, Top Free, Popular Now and even the New Releases section are based on big data and machine learning driven by Bing.
The plan is to offer more promotional spots while making sure that the apps listed are the high quality ones that deserve to make the lists. An interesting new app could start in the Spotlight area; if it attracts interest it might move into the Popular Now section and then, if it continues to get downloads, graduate to the Top Free or Top Paid list. The Windows Phone store already has hand-picked lists for key areas, so if the Bing-powered recommendations work well, expect to see them here as well.
Another thing that changes in Windows 8.1 is that a user can install an app on up to 81 devices, rather than just five. Microsoft will monitor this for abuse, so a user might run the same app on their desktop PC and tablet at the same time, but if it’s running on 50 machines at once they’ve probably shared my account with their friends. If the same change comes to Windows Phone 8.1, you might want to consider shifting your business model to service subscriptions or in-app purchases.
Microsoft has recently added new payment options for its store and for in-app purchases. These include Microsoft Gift Cards, which can be earned through its Bing Rewards service, and PayPal. At the heart of the Windows Phone payment service is the Wallet app, and this now automatically offers operator billing as a default option, where the user’s operator supports it. Operators in the UK include Everything Everywhere (EE) and there’s no extra work needed as it is integrated into the store directly. There’s a lot of evidence for the effectiveness of operator billing for app and in-app purchases with surveys showing that it doubles paid downloads with 75 per cent of Windows Phone users opting for it over the alternatives.
Alternatively you can use advertising to support free applications, either using Microsoft’s Ad Control or third party advertising services. If you’re targeting multiple geographies you may need to publish different versions of your app with different advertising tools, as not all networks support all geographies. Microsoft states that currently half of all Windows Phone app revenue comes from advertising, and if you use the Microsoft Ad Control you can see reports on revenue from both Windows Phone and Windows 8 platforms.
Windows Phone offers an easy on-ramp to app development in the shape of the Windows Phone App Studio. While it’s designed to produce apps that are powered by RSS feeds or by data hosted in the Studio, it also lets you export well documented MVVM (Model-View-ViewModel) code ready for use in Visual Studio or the free Visual Studio Express. Once in Visual Studio, your apps can use the new Portable Class Libraries to share code with Windows 8 and Windows Server, while the Azure Mobile Services tools give you a cloud back end for push notifications, and to manage access to services.
Users need to find apps when they’ve been published, and Microsoft has been working to make them easier to discover. New Collections in the Store curate popular apps around themes, and it’s easier to find apps that have free trials. Users can also opt to get recommendations, using Bing’s tools to find apps based on the Collections of both themselves and their contacts. That makes it easier for your apps to be discovered, and for users to purchase them. Many of the same tools are available on the Web, and users can purchase from the Store Web site and have their app delivered straight to their phone. You can also use official badges on your Web site to drive potential users straight to the Store – and to buying your app.
With the tools Microsoft has in place, it’s now easier to share code between Windows Phone apps and Windows, to start building apps, and to work with cloud services. It’s also cheaper and easier to put them in the Store and sell them to most of the world with comprehensive support for trials, betas and in-app purchases. It’s also easier for users to find them, and pay for them in whatever method they want. As Windows Phone firms up to becoming the third ecosystem for mobile, and now Microsoft has bought Nokia’s device business, it looks like time to start coding for these devices.