Absent apps present another hurdle for Windows Phone 7


As Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 push kicks into high gear ahead of the holidays, great devices like the HTC HD7 will help foster interest in the new smartphone operating system. Microsoft’s massive advertising campaign certainly won’t hurt either. Putting eyes on the new OS is only half the battle, however, as Microsoft struggles to regain mind share in a category it helped build a decade ago.

Times have changed since the introduction of Pocket PC 2000, and smartphone platforms now battle for billions rather than scrounging for scraps. The global market for smart devices has exploded and in the process, consumers have evolved. Pedigree isn’t enough for smartphone users anymore — the market is changing far too rapidly for major players to rely on blind allegiance to keep customers aboard. Apple has taken the industry by storm, Google’s Android OS is gaining market share at breakneck speeds, and successful platforms like Symbian and BlackBerry are on the verge of revitalization. Smartphone brands need to fight for users more today than ever before.

And on top of all this commotion in the industry, a new mobile currency has been born: apps.

Once barely an afterthought, smartphone apps now play a central role in the success of a platform. It has gotten to the point where Apple and Google hold the number of apps in their respective catalogs over competitors’ heads. But it’s not just marketing — an abundance of apps is of paramount importance for smartphone platforms, and users will have a hard time jumping from one platform to another if their staples are not available on the new OS.

One app that has found its way onto the must-have list for countless users in recent history is an SMS replacement service called WhatsApp.

Like the popular BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service available on RIM’s smartphones, WhatsApp provides a vastly improved alternative to traditional SMS. Users can send text, picture, video or audio messages, and WhatsApp even makes it easy to share a location on a map. Unlike BBM, however, WhatsApp has the advantage of working across multiple platforms. It has become the premier means of communication for countless smartphone users, and that is where Microsoft has a problem.

As of right now, WhatsApp will not be making its way to Windows Phone 7 — and the reason behind the app’s absence on the new Microsoft platform has nothing to do with a lack of perceived value.

“We would love to build a client because our mission is to have our application available on as many platforms as possible, which is why you see us support platforms like Nokia while many of our competitors do not,” WhatsApp Inc. CEO Jan Koum told BGR in an interview. “WP7 is missing core address book integration APIs that our application requires.”

WhatsApp has amassed millions of users to date, and the fact that it’s smarter than most messaging apps helps keep users on board. The app doesn’t use screen names, user names or PIN numbers to identify its users — in fact, you don’t even need to add contacts manually. The app constantly scans your local address book and compares the phone numbers within to its massive list of users. When someone in your address book has WhatsApp installed on his or her phone, an entry will automatically be added to your WhatsApp contact list.

This seemingly simple function is one of the behind-the-scenes processes that makes WhatsApp unique and far more user-friendly than the bulk of its competition. It’s just like SMS — all you need is a cell phone number and you can communicate. Because Windows Phone 7 does not give apps a way to access and scan the address book, this key functionality would be impossible on the platform.

We asked several WhatsApp users if they would consider purchasing a phone with which WhatsApp was not compatible. The answer was unanimous. “Not in a million years,” one WhatsApp user said. “I use it more than texting, email and phone calls combined.”

This is a big problem for Microsoft. WhatsApp is just one example of countless hugely popular apps that are not yet available on the Windows Phone 7 platform. Some titles, like Pandora Radio for example, will likely launch in the near future. Other popular apps may never come, unfortunately.

While Microsoft should be doing everything in its power to woo developers and provide robust tools with extensive and clear documentation, Windows Phone 7 remains a giant question mark for Koum and the rest of the WhatsApp team. “We don’t know of any possible workarounds at the moment and we don’t know if these issues will be addressed in future versions.” That won’t stop the company from continuing to expand its offering and leaving Windows Phone 7 behind, however. WhatsApp is currently available for iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Symbian smartphones, and Koum confirmed to BGR that the company has plans to expand to new platforms in 2011.

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