Over the weekend, I had a twitter conversation with the Wordboxer developers, trying to get them to port their game to Windows Phone. It brought to light an important point about the Windows Phone (and for that matter, Blackberry) app problem: most cool games and apps are being built by small shops or single developers who just don’t have the time to build and maintain more than one or maybe two versions of their app/game. I really hope the Windows Phone (and Windows 8) teams realize this and create ways and means to reach these folks and help them out with the education needed to have them port their apps.
I know with the addition to C++ and support for cross-platform game engines on both Windows Phone and Windows 8, things are easier in terms of porting, but the point is most devs look at market share numbers and shy away from the platform. Of course, the market share going up and reaching some level of respectability (10% in the US?) may automatically help, but until then, Microsoft has a tough problem on their hands. They have to increase sales of devices, they have to attract the big brands and they have to make sure the indie devs also consider Windows Phone, if not at launch, at least soon after.
Fingers are crossed.
Windows Phone app problem
Small devs really don’t have time to develop and maintain code for more than one or two platforms. Even though Windows Phone dev tools are arguably better than anything else out there, and porting is easier with Windows Phone 8, it comes down to resources. Here is a great example of that.
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Microsoft has updated their Android app for Outlook.com – it is beautiful and a must-have!
Disqus releases a mobile app for Windows Phone and not for iOS or Android. Outside Microsoft/Nokia, it may be the first such company.
Much has been discussed among Windows Phone (and Windows 8/RT) circles about lack of podcast features in the phone and lack of a native app on big Windows.
I am a big podcast listener. Not huge, but I do listen to a few podcasts regularly. In fact, so regularly, that I have formed a nice list of things I would want in an ideal podcast app/service. The reason I put app/service is because we are now no longer in a single device world.
- Native apps for my devices: I use Windows Phone, Windows 8/RT and Windows 7. I would like native apps for at least phone and “Windows Store”.
- Catalog: Big enough, and fresh enough catalog so that I don’t have to add podcasts by URL.
- Easy subscribe settings: Options during subscribe should include auto downloads, number of episodes to keep, episode delete settings, etc.
- Remember played position: For each podcast, for each episode.
- Cloud: Sync settings, subscriptions and played positions to the cloud. Configurable setting for syncing on-device episodes to the cloud as well.
- Refresh/check for new episodes: Check for new episodes when app is opened, automatically. Also, check on a schedule that can be configured and have a default. So if the default is 3am and 3pm every day, I know when I get up and am ready for my commute, there may be some fresh episodes waiting for me. Same, with a 3pm check for the commute home.
- Playback speed adjustment: Must-have for me, at least 1.5x.
Some bonus territory items:
- Playback in the cloud: If my subscriptions, settings and on-device episodes are synced to the cloud, I suppose I should be able to play those episodes from the web too. That would take care of machines which don’t have native apps, for example Windows 7 or Macs/iPads/iPhone/iPod.
- Discovery: Based on what I have subscribed to, and perhaps extending it to my social networks, suggest other podcasts.
- Live tiles: I don’t care much about getting notified of new episodes, so I put this in the bonus territory. Live tile notifications of new episodes.
- Usage notifications: Notify (via live tile or otherwise) me about space used being above a certain threshold, or unplayed episodes going above a certain threshold.
Things I don’t care about but I have seen in some apps:
- Visual niceties: Like the tape player in the iOS app. Don’t care about it since I always lock the phone screen anyway.
- Social sharing: I don’t share either while listening or otherwise, so I don’t care about that feature.
Too much to ask? Is there any podcast app/service that does this already? I think Downcast on iOS comes very close in terms of functionality but they are only on iOS so far, but have expressed that they may look at WP with no real commitment provided. The iOS Podcasts app does not seem to delete episodes after they are finished which is a bummer (either a bug or a feature, but either way, a bummer for me).
None of the Windows Phone 3rd party apps do auto-download yet. There are some in the process of getting released with promised functionality but none generally available yet.
The native Windows Phone feature does not have a manual check for new episodes, and there is no clear understanding when exactly it checks for new episodes. Besides, there is no corresponding app on Windows 8, and of course, there is no playback speed adjustment.
Let me know if you find any compatible apps
A look at the beautiful app in the Windows 8 Release Preview: Cocktail Flow
Plex, the “media center” software application built for a multitude of devices, has a Windows Phone app now. They wrote up a blog post about it and while I am excited that there is a WP7 app now, it was heartening to see the praise they had for WP7 both from a user’s perspective as well as from a developer’s perspective.
There are so many gems in that post, I felt compelled to not only write this blog post, but highlight a bunch of the gems from the post:
Android phones never managed to capture my interest. They just looked and felt like bad photocopies of the iPhone, and didn’t offer anything new I was interested in, like the ability to install a custom theme that looked even uglier than the default, or download torrents on my phone, or play a Matrix animation in the background, or remove my battery, or spend time killing random processes, or over-clock my CPU, or any other beardy sort of thing.
Fast-forward to this January, I ordered a second hand Samsung device to help with development, and promptly fell in love with it.
As much as Android felt like (poorly) recycled ideas and bad new ones, Windows Phone felt original, well designed, and fun to use.
The performance was great, really smooth in a way iOS is and Android isn’t even in ICS.
[Ice Cream Sandwich, or Android 4.0, from a Windows Phone User's Perspective (my Techie Buzz post from earlier)]
The “pivot” and “panorama” UI concepts were fresh and a great way of making good use of a small screen in portrait mode. The typography was clean and brazen.
The integration of Facebook and Twitter made them feel like first class citizens, not an afterthought.
The live tiles on the home screen were a great way to make the phone feel alive.
But the iPhone felt staid, for lack of a better word. I wanted to be able to pin a few email folders to my home screen and watch them update live. I wanted to see all my social updates in a more integrated way. I missed being able to go to a contact (which I could also pin to my home screen), and easily see the conversations (Facebook, or SMS) I was having with them, and recent photos they’d uploaded.
The iOS development environment is quite good, with the weakest link being Objective-C, which has a steep learning curve and feels like it stepped out of the 80s with a cocaine hangover.
Android, oh, Android, I don’t mean to pick on you once again, but your edit-build-deploy cycle is long enough to make a grown man cry, and then stab himself in the eyeballs, and then cry some more. Java is fine, but the surrounding environment and piss-poor emulator makes it much harder to develop for than it should be.
So how is the Windows Phone development environment? It’s scary good. C# is a great language, .NET is a solid framework, XAML is a really nice way to design user interfaces, and the edit-build-deploy cycle is fast.
We were able to write the [WP7] app from start to finish in two months, between two engineers working part time, which is almost an order of magnitude faster than it took for the iOS and Android app.
Related (linked to from the blog post):
58 minutes later an a new wp7 Instagram client is born. I think that’s a record for me (but #nuget helped me along the way)
— Bil Simser (@bsimser) January 13, 2012
My last thought on Windows Phone is that it’s got all the ingredients it needs to be successful: It’s a fun, useful, well-designed platform, with sexy (Nokia) hardware, and it’s as good for developers as it is for users. It deserves much more marketshare than it has, and Microsoft seems to be making most of the right moves (about time).
Since I use WP7 all day and follow a bunch of WP7 developers on twitter, I am very well aware of all these benefits. I am glad the folks at Plex thought of putting all these thoughts on their blog.
Hope to see many others release their WP7 apps. Are you listening, Instagram?
Microsoft announces major upgrades to SkyDrive coming with Windows 8, making personal cloud and device cloud a reality.
Hands on with Nokia Drive and Nokia Transport, two location-based apps which come with Nokia Windows Phone devices.