Why I’m worried Windows Marketplace for Mobile will undermine creativity and experimentation

winmarketmobileThere’s no arguing that third-party applications is what makes smartphones great, after all, there’s only so much a first-party can or should do.

The state of the applications ecosystem on Windows Mobile today is disorganized and unprofessional, so the news couldn’t come sooner Microsoft had finally put together a centralized app store, the Windows Marketplace for Mobile. However, a small detail in the developer program has me worried developers will be reluctant or can’t afford to release cool and interesting applications.

The particular detail in the developer program I want to highlight is the cost to submit an application to the marketplace. Whilst both Microsoft and Apple asks (at least) $99 to join the developer program, Apple allows unlimited application submissions whereas Microsoft gives developers only five free submissions per year and $99 per submission after that.

Up until now, I optimistically assumed this does not apply to free applications but today, Microsoft also confirmed to me that free applications too will cost you a submission token. So if you were to submit 10 free applications a year, that would cost you $495. A lousy return on investment if you ask me.

I don’t think is fair to developers at all. If you put yourself in the shoes of a developer, ignoring what smells you may come across, instead of dreaming up experimental but perhaps not fully-refined applications which could become a very profitable application (for both the developer and Microsoft) down the road, they’re left with a burden to make sure every submission is worth the cost of submission – a token or $99.

On one hand this could be a good thing, putting an artificial barrier-to-entry for fart-noise and other not-so-practical applications, but on the other, there is the possibility of a killer application in the making never seeing the light of day, and that’s a worth a couple useless soundboard applications in my books.

Obviously developers are still free to distribute any applications on their own from their own website, but that contradicts the whole reason why there needs to be a marketplace in the first place. I believe Microsoft needs to change the development program so free applications do not require a submission token, so a developer could submit as many free applications as they wish. Anyone agree?

29 insightful thoughts

  1. I’m wondering if the reason isn’t, at least in part, to stop people (or at least discourage) from uploading any half-finished dross they can think of? Granted there are surely better ways of achieving that, but if Microsoft are trying to do something to reduce the amount of drivel polluting their mobile app store, more power to them 😉

  2. @Rob: That’s true, but sometimes those half-finished dross can become polished rubies if it was unique and enough people took attention of it or liked where it was heading. That’s how a lot of mainstream apps today have come from. :)

  3. It’s still a semi-open platform though… apps like cydia (installer.app) won’t be outlawed so there could/would/will be choice. There is also the manual install option like there is now.

    (note to self: treating everything like Twitter is annoying, stop to consolidate thoughts before pressing submit)

  4. I agree that charging for free Application submissions is a bit silly, and it will certainly curb the availability and development of free apps, which are where the fun is, but I think the cost is due to the MS Certification process – I imagine MS will be doing a degree of testing to make sure the apps meet certain standard levels. Which is a great idea in principle, as theres some assured quality, but it does increase the barriers to entry somewhat for free applications…it’s nice enough that people will develop stuff freely, but charging to develop freely is kind of cheeky. A two layered model, with tested, certified and paid-for submissions in one area, and another, with free, untested and uncertified submissions without a submission cost would probably be the most sensible.

  5. I think they charge too much after all $99 fees, 70% of the income is really unfair to the developers.

    Microsoft had publicly claimed their Windows platform can attract more application than others is the key of their success. While Steve B said 70% is too much back at the Mix 07 keynote, I think they should really lower the cost for the developers, or consider the Zumobi’s ad revenue mode.

  6. The decision to copy Apple’s approach and charge an ‘entry’ fee is an interesting one. Whilst on one hand it discourages the time-wasters, it also (as you say) puts a hurdle in front of genuine potential. I much prefer a ‘carrot’ to a ‘stick’ approach, and unfortunately Microsoft seems to using the latter more often these days.
    So, alternatively I’d like to see encouragement for exceptional work through competitions, peer recognition and awards (since they have a certification program for Marketplace). And further to that I’d also like to see a reduction in their 30% commission. This is afterall a catchup strategy they are putting in place, and so far I can’t see anything remarkable that would lure developers away from the iPhone path many of them are heading down currently. This and a few other thoughts are here:
    http://craigbailey.net/live/post/2009/03/14/Windows-Marketplace-for-Mobile.aspx

  7. Agree :-)
    Free app submission can encourage developers to experiment and start with simpler apps and progress further to a more fully-featured apps hence improving the quality of the product overall.

  8. If its both good and free, it will be found, with or without the marketplace.

    I mean it may even encourage people to donate money to free developers to help them get their apps onto the marketplace, allowing them to earn some spare change as well. Not only that, but people won’t donate to ‘crap free apps’, so they won’t get on the marketplace (unless the ‘crap’ developer pays to put it on). So thats kinda a bonus =)

    Also, the 5 free submissions thing isn’t too bad, do developers really make significantly more then 5 really good useful apps a year? (btw, is that per app or per update?)

    Although they should really give more back to the developer, say 85% would be a very good number, and encourage more developers to work with the Windows Mobile platform.

  9. @Kit

    They only take 30% of the sale price.

    Maybe if they did the pricing on a sliding scale. Something like 5 for $99, 10 for $149, 20 for $199…

    I like the idea of a two-tiered model.

  10. Agreed. Free apps are, and of a right ought to be, free and independent apps. 😉

    On other news, I got my 7 beta DVD from Long on Saturday! But, the disk was cracked in half :-( At least I had already downloaded it, and it is still cool to have!

  11. @Long: storm in a teacup. Raises the quality bar. And there may be no mechanism to prevent multiple sign-ups by the same person anyway (so net cost $200).

    Can you point to a few of these free long tail applications? And how many attempts did they grow from?

  12. @Conker: Multiple sign-ups is just a workaround, developers shouldn’t have to do that.

    I don’t have any examples of a mobile app free turned paid, but all the Windows Mobile apps I currently use are free. But there’s a couple apps I use on Windows which started as very interesting freeware and with strong user support are now paid apps which I’ve bought copies of. Window Clippings is a good example.

  13. I’d like to first point out that the 99 USD fee predates the Apple App Store. If you take a look at programming for Xbox Live with the XNA framework then you will see that it also cost 99 USD. It even cost 99 USD back before Microsoft opened a pathway for individuals to distribute the Xbox/XNA applications. Free or not, there is a 99 USD fee to be registered to publis applications in the Apple App store. So even publication of the Flashlight and Flatus apps cost some one 99 USD. Before apple used to charge the 99 USD when you wanted to download the development tools. It was not until later that Apple changed to charging at the point of registration for submitting an application. The minimum toolset for developing on Windows Mobile devices has been free for a long time; Microsoft made the core components and an emulator for development free and you only need to find an IDE (SharpDevelop.Net is a very good free IDE).

    I don’t see this having a huge impact on developers. In randomly checking the Apple app store I don’t see that the developers that are produce only free apps produce more than 5 apps in a year. If the same pattern holds for the Windows Mobile app store then we find that the price is the same for both app stores for the most common scenario. When I did find a developer that produced more than 5 apps in a year it is usually because the apps are duplicates (Lite/trial version and paid version) in which case the developer is getting revenue. Applications of substance usually require a good bit of time to develop. So unless you are developing applications at a rate faster of one ever 2.5 months then you won’t have to worry about the price to submit a sixth application.

    In general most of the negative comments I’ve seen for the price of application submission are generally written from what I would call a consumer point of view; consumers generally have more concern for the up front cost while paying less attention to residual cost or total cost of ownership and return on investment. When the cost is evaluated from an ROI perspective what we find is that for 8.25 USD/month you will be able to publish up to 5 of your applications in a store that has higher visibility and accessibility than anything currently available for Windows Mobile at this time. If you have published those 5 applications and are earning revenue of atleast 8.25/month than the 99 fee for the sixth application is of little consequence.

    There is also lower risk associated with acquiring Windows Mobile certification. Within the Apple App store after you’ve spent time developing an application it may or may not be accepted. If it is not accepted then there is no other legitament way to distribute your application. The certification guidelines are not well defined so your ability to design such that your application will pass certification is rather limited. Microsoft has always kept public the guidelines against which they certify an application (See this for the guidelines for WiMo 5 and 6 and be sure to check back for the guidelines for WiMo 6.5 later http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/windowsmobile/bb327790.aspx ). If you make the decision to make an application that violates a guideline you can still do so and distribute it on your own.

  14. I agree with you long, and I think that since Ms won’t give the right to create applications for WinMo using visual Studio Express, the “necessary” fee is “huge” compared to the one in the AppStore.

    Can’t Microsoft consider that this “fee” comes with the price of visual studio ??

  15. I tis a popular misconception that you need Visual Studio to develop for Windows Mobile.

    The base level components needed are available freely. You need the .Net compact Framework SDK (free download from Microsoft) and an editor or IDE (take your choice). I did a write up on getting a minimal environment setup for .Net Compact Framework development.

    http://www.codeproject.com/KB/mobile/WiMoSansVS.aspx

    Note that the solution here does not address debugging. I’ve yet to do a writeup on how to setup a debugging environment.

    All of that being said your time is valuable and I discourage development without Visual Studio. The price of it will more than make up for itself with the time it saves you. If you are interested in commercially producing Windows Mobile applications you can acquire Visual Studio at a discount through the ISV Empowerment program. When you sign up for that program you get an MSDN subscription which contains Visual Studio (among many other things). The proce to become part of that program is around 375 USD. Please consult https://empower-isv.one.microsoft.com/isv/Help/en/rsc.htm for a list of other countries which have an ISV Empower Program.

  16. I just think the whole thing is ironic, given Steve Ballmer’s earlier derision of Apple’s pricing model. Now they’re adopting nearly the same model when Windows Mobile really needs a shot in the arm. It’s like the Zune–it’s a great device, but who will buy it when it’s the same price as the iPod? Does Microsoft really care about winning? Are they completely immune to how so many have basically dismissed them as a true competitor to RIM and Apple? The platform is evolving at a snail’s pace, and rather than do something dramatic to attempt to draw any attention back to WinMo, it’s like they are putting their fingers in their ears and are pretending all’s well. They may have respectable marketshare NOW, but they have zero momentum.

    One would think that if they were truly aggressive and interesting in WINNING, they’d do something other than a hopelessly late, me-too offering.

  17. I personally wouldn’t be worried about this. The major difference is that Microsoft does not prevent you from just copying the cab file to the phone and running it there. So those “suspect-quality” or at least lower grade apps will still be released and distributed via current means.

  18. I have additional questions about this:
    – Does the 5 Applications limit apply to updates? If that’s the case developers will be actively discouraged from fixing bugs and responding to customer feedback (something I personally put a lot of effort into).
    – Are there additional costs? If developers are still expected to pay the costs of certification and any code-signing certificates that may be required (as opposed to optional) – (Apple includes code signing certs in the yearly $99 fee, and I believe Android allows self-signing), forget it. It will be impossible for anyone other than the Enterprise crowd (whom Microsoft has been courting for years ignoring that phones and PDAs are inherently personal and in all but nice markets consumer devices) the barrier to entry will be to high, and given the low margins we’ve seen in the Apple App Store I don’t see much chance of even recouping development costs, let alone making a profit.
    – I believe 29 countries were mentioned for the initial launch. Will the marketplace be open to *developers* from those countries, or will it be restricted to US or North American or US+UK developers? If the latter then I will frankly abandon all of my personal development projects using Microsoft technologies. I Shouldn’t have to ask this question but experience indicates that I do.

    A final observation: Including free apps in the limit means only students will put free apps in the marketplace. This is a shame, because they are not only a useful way to initially engage with your customer base, but also give customers a chance to get an idea of what you can offer (in terms of technology and service) before they hand over money.

    I know the tone of this comment is negative and combative, and I’m sorry for that. But I’ve been using and developing for Microsoft’s mobile platforms since buying a Jornada 545 in 2000, and I really do believe in what we now call Windows Mobile (although I think Pocket PC expressed a concept that I was happier with, particularly since Palm at the time were assuring everybody that all you needed was a monochrome PIM that didn’t do anything much. I *want* Windows Mobile and initiatives such as this to succeed and prosper – I just hope the responsible parties at Microsoft get this right.

    We need it (particularly since Handango for example no seems to be irretrievably broken), but done badly it would be worse than nothing.

  19. I was going to suggest myself, but Andrew has put it perfectly. Having a two layered approach for $certified$ and free apps will give the users and developers an informed choice.

  20. I don’t think that it is wrong of them to limit free apps this way. Because unlike Apple , you can always get a free app from a developers blog or something like that. Plus, the marketplace will be far more organized and with better quality than the iphone’s . As for including the free apps for trial purposes( for a normal paid app), there is no need to do so , because there will be a trial period an the users will be able to test it without buying it beforehand.

  21. One thing I never like about Microsoft is the fact that they always talk soo much about what are going to do but then end up usually doing very little.

    Companies like Apple on other hand don’t usually talk that much about what they are going to do… instead they tell what they have actually done.

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