Windows Phone users' problem: There's no app for that

Microsoft has touted the 145,000 apps available for Windows Phone, but new research shows that when it comes to the most popular apps, Windows Phone lags well behind both iOS and Android. Canalys has found that the Windows Phone store has only about a third of the apps that are most popular with Android and iOS users.

According to Canalys, the the Windows Phone store has 16 of the most popular 50 free Apple App Store apps, and 14 of the most popular 50 paid apps. It has 22 of the most popular 50 free Google Play store's apps and 13 of the most popular 50 paid. Overall, that amounts to 65 out of the top 200 free and paid apps in its competitors' stores, just under 33 percent.

The numbers aren't quite that bad when you take into account that some of the most popular apps are either designed for a specific ecosystem (such as "Find my iPhone") or take advantage of features that Windows Phone doesn't have, such as the ability to use a phone as a flashlight. Still, even when you take that into account, it doesn't change the picture much.

Microsoft isn't alone in having this problem. Canalys found that BlackBerry similarly has a low percent of the most popular apps available for iOS and Android.

The lack of popular apps isn't just a PR problem -- it's directly connected to the success of a phone's operating system. Canalys Senior Analyst Tim Shepherd says:

"The availability of key apps is a factor in motivating consumers' initial mobile device purchasing decisions, and it will only become more so. But moreover, it is a major factor in determining ongoing consumer satisfaction...It is therefore imperative for the success of both Windows Phone and BlackBerry that their respective app ecosystems attract and offer the high-quality content that consumers want and would otherwise miss."

The report noted that Google Play and the Apple App Store each have more than 800,000 apps. But Shepherd says that raw numbers don't tell the whole story. Instead, it's important that Windows phone and Blackberry each carry a full complement of top-notch apps in all categories:

"At a certain point, how many apps are in a store becomes irrelevant. Offering 100 different unit converters or weather apps is not a valuable choice. What is now far more important for BlackBerry and Microsoft is to focus on plugging inventory gaps and making sure they offer the right apps; to focus on quality and local relevance, not quantity. They must ensure they are attracting and proactively encouraging apps from the locally relevant brands in their key markets, such as retailers, banks, transport services and airlines, news, sport and weather providers, and popular online content, services, communities and games."

The news hasn't been all bad for Windows Phone recently, though. The latest figures from IDC show that Windows Phone has become the third most popular smartphone OS, edging past BlackBerry, with a 3.2 percent market share to BlackBerry's 2.9 percent. Even more important is that Windows Phone shipments have more than doubled in the past year, to 7 million in the first quarter.

That should help Windows Phone sign up developers. Developers understandably don't want to spend their time porting apps to an operating system that's failing, so Windows Phone growth may win some over. Still, 3.2 percent market share and 7 million units shipped in a quarter are dwarfed by Android's 75 percent market share and 162.1 million units shipped, and iPhone's 17.3 percent market share and 37.4 million phones shipped.

Microsoft clearly has a long way to go to plug the holes in the Windows Phone store. Until it closes the app gap between it and the iPhone and Android phones, it's not likely to become a serious competitor in the market to them.

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