Microsoft's long-term Windows 8 app strategy may backfire, say analysts

CEO Steve Ballmer courts developers just a month from launch

As the countdown clock ticks toward Windows 8's launch later this month, Microsoft has still not shown that there will be enough apps to drive users toward the new OS, an analyst said Friday.

Last week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer again touted Windows 8 as a lucrative development platform, a move seen by many as a pep rally for programmers.

"There will be customers coming and looking for apps. That I can assure you," Ballmer was quoted by Wired as saying at a San Francisco event for developers. "It's going to create a heck of a lot of opportunity for folks in this room to make millions," he said.

The late push -- and the relatively small number of apps now in the Windows Store -- made one analyst question Microsoft's strategy.

"Microsoft has put a big burden on Windows 8 and Windows RT," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, referring to the tablet-oriented spinoff. "They have to have a large number of high-quality apps.... I've said 5,000 is a reasonable number...to be successful at launch. They don't need 100,000, but they need a decent number."

And Moorhead's not seeing that in the Windows Store, the sole distribution channel for Windows 8 and Windows RT apps written for the "Modern" interface. Like Apple's iOS App Store and its OS X Mac App Store, the Windows Store is curated: Microsoft reviews each submission and is the final arbiter of what can be sold or given away at the Store.

According to Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, as of Sept. 26, the Windows Store sported 2,452 apps, 1,741 of them available to U.S. customers. About 86% were free.

Miller has been tracking the number of apps in the Windows Store for two months, and regularly posts results to his WinAppUpdate website.

The two-thousand-and-counting number is far from Moorhead's 5,000, and includes a large number of "filler" apps that don't meet his definition of high quality. That, along with Ballmer's continuing recruitment of developers, makes Microsoft's strategy clear.

"They're thinking long-term," said Moorhead. "Microsoft and their partners are taking a long-term view of this. What's important [to them] is getting Windows into mobility. They're not too concerned about making that first impression [at launch]."

Moorhead sees that as a mistake. "It's their strategy, but it's not what I would do," he said.

Three weeks ago, he argued that failures of other tablets, including Hewlett-Packard's TouchPad and RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook, could be traced to a lack of high-quality apps and a weak app store. "History shows that for consumers, the first impression is the one that sticks," Moorhead said then.

He's sticking to that view.

"October 26 will send a message to developers, particularly consumer [app] developers, as to whether they should stay on the sideline or step up and create an app," Moorhead said, speaking of the quantity and quality of the Windows Store's inventory at launch. "All of the focus needs to be on the consumer side, because there's not enough in Windows 8 for classic laptop and desktop users to make a move."

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