What's wrong with Windows Store?

Microsoft introduces major facelift for the Windows Store -- a welcome improvement to, frankly, a wasteland

In a classic chicken-and-the-egg conundrum, the Windows Store needs more Windows 8 customers and Windows 8 customers need more worthwhile apps from the store. Microsoft has failed miserably at attracting compelling content, a painful fact for any developer -- or software company -- thinking about committing the resources to bring a Metro app to market. How bad is it? To find out, I took a look at several Top Sellling Apps lists and compared them to what's available right now in the Windows Store. 

In short, it's a wasteland.

Canalys has an excellent, detailed analysis of the (lack of) popular apps in the Windows Store using estimated sales and download numbers for the first 20 days of May. Tim Shepherd at Canalys puts it this way: "The availability of key apps is a factor in motivating consumers’ initial mobile device purchasing decisions, and it will only become more so. Moreover, it is a major factor in determining ongoing consumer satisfaction... The Windows Phone store contained 16 of the top 50 free Apple App Store applications and 14 of the top 50 paid. It contained 22 of the top 50 free Google Play store’s applications and 13 of the top 50 paid."

I decided to take a different approach and look at what the individual apps are doing. The Canalys comparison tells an interesting story, but the numbers hide a few important nuances.

For example, a large majority of the paid Android apps are utility apps that may or may not be applicable on Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8 devices. Titanium Backup Pro, Nova Launcher Prime, Beautiful Widgets Pro, Root Explorer, ROM Manager, and PdaNet+FoxFi -- six of the top 10 paid Android apps, according to a recent reconnoitering of the Play Store (remember that Google's top 10 list changes almost continuously) are utilities that don't really have analogs in the Windows world. A seventh, SwiftKey, may or may not be better than the built-in WP8 keyboard. Of the three remaining in the top 10, one (Poweramp) exists in the Windows Store. But a very popular app -- Minecraft -- isn't yet in the Windows fold, and the Plants vs. Zombies app in the Windows Store is for the desktop only. If you just count the numbers, you could say that nine out of the top 10 paid Android apps aren't in the Windows Store, but that glosses over quite a bit.

Looking at the top 10 free Android apps, though, paints a very different picture. When I froze the figures for this report, six of the top 10 free Android apps weren't in the Windows Store, and for the most part they're important apps: Facebook, Pandora, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, and Kik Messenger. Skype is available in both stores, of course. None of the top Android games -- Candy Crush Saga, Despicable Me, or Can You Escape -- is available in Windows.

The Apple AppStore sings a similar tune. Eight of the 10 top AppStore paid apps aren't in Windows, although the two exceptions -- WhatsApp and Where's My Mickey -- were at the top of the AppStore paid list. None of the top 10 freebies were in the Windows Store, although one AppStore freebie, Battery Saver, is arguably an iOS-specific utility.

The top 10 lists in the Windows Store (to see them from Win8, tap or click the Metro Store tile and choose the garish Top Free or Top Paid tile) pack several surprises. For example, the top 10 free apps include Skype and Google Search, an Xbox-specific app, a front end to Facebook and one for YouTube (neither of which is made by its respective company), a used car app, and four games that don't seem to be available anywhere else. The paid list includes Plex (a replacement for the Metro Music and Video apps), a skin, a uTorrent client that isn't made by the uTorrent people, and seven mostly unrecognizable games.

In May, Apple released a list of the best-selling iPhone and iPad apps of all time and a list of the most downloaded free apps for each platform. Almost all of the top paid apps are games (exceptions: WhatsApp -- which is also in the Windows Store -- Draw Something, and Camera+). Windows Store only has a few of the games, and the games that have been ported are frequently more expensive on the Windows side -- $4.99 for Angry Birds Space in the Windows Store vs. 99 cents in the Apple AppStore, for example.

Windows Store's inadequacies come into full view, though, when you consider the most-downloaded free iOS apps of all time: Facebook, Pandora, Instagram, YouTube, Words with Friends, Temple Run, Netflix, Draw Something, Plants vs. Zombies, Flixster, Facebook Messenger, Groupon, Google Maps, Google Earth ... the list goes on. Microsoft's not only missing some of the biggest apps, its coverage of the middle tier looks like random hits on a dartboard. Where's IMDB? Letter Press? HBO Go? Rdio? Spotify? Pinterest?

At the Build conference last week, Microsoft announced that Metro apps are coming from Facebook, Foursquare, and Flipboard "real soon" now. I guess we'll see them when/if they arrive.

I'm still trying to figure out why Facebook is so late to the party. The Windows Store has been around, including various pre-release forms, for nearly two years -- it was announced at the Build conference in September 2011. Microsoft owns almost $800 million in Facebook stock. Was it really that hard for Microsoft to sell Facebook on Windows 8?

All of the stores publish meaningless numbers about how many apps they have available (who cares if there are 14,000 different weather apps?) and questionable numbers for downloads. But the number that really counts -- the total amount paid to app developers -- stands as a bellwether. In June, Apple said it had paid $10 billion to app developers to date. In May, Google said "over the last four months this year we have already paid out more money to Android developers on Google Play than in all of last year" -- but there wasn't even a hint of a number. As far as I can tell, Microsoft has never divulged anything about Windows Store developer payments -- nothing.

This story, "What's wrong with Windows Store?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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