Can Windows Phone overcome operator indifference?

Jason Ankeny

Research firm IDC shook up its Magic 8-Ball last week to predict which operating system will rule the worldwide smartphone landscape in 2015, and it's no surprise that the response came back "Android." IDC anticipates the Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) mobile platform will grow to control more than 40 percent of the global smartphone market by the end of 2011 and achieve 43.8 percent market share by 2015, buoyed by an expanding network of vendors who've hitched their respective wagons to Android's star. What is a surprise is the mobile operating system IDC expects to claim the number two spot in 2015: Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone. Although Windows Phone 7 is expected to command only 3.8 percent global market share at year's end, IDC forecasts it will rise to 20.3 percent by 2015 once it replaces Symbian as Nokia's (NYSE:NOK) primary smartphone OS. (IDC adds Symbian will erode from 20.6 percent at the end of this year to a mere 0.1 percent by the conclusion of the forecast period.)

But for Windows Phone to catch fire, both operators and subscribers have to embrace its possibilities--and so far, carriers aren't holding up their end of the bargain. A flurry of recent reports indicate that U.S. operator retail stores are effectively ignoring Windows Phone in favor of iOS and Android devices, with employees aggressively persuading prospective WP7 buyers to rethink their plans. Reports add that carrier stores offer few if any Windows Phone devices, and employees seem to know little about the platform--those that do dismiss it as "unreliable," or cite negligible interest from other shoppers. Whether it's a result of poor communication between Microsoft and its carrier partners, lack of employee training or staffer bias in favor of other operating systems, the takeaway is the same--Windows Phone has no chance of emerging as a legitimate contender in the U.S. unless carriers commit to its growth.

Windows Phone also needs more attention from developers. About a month after introducing a new interoperability package enabling mobile developers to port their iOS applications to Windows Phone, last week Microsoft expanded its efforts to Android, introducing an interoperability package including an Android-to-Windows Phone API mapping tool as well as a 90-page white paper that explores the ins and outs of the WP7 platform. For now, the APIs are broadly classified into seven categories: Audio/Video, Data Management, Graphics/Animation, Network/Internet, Performance, Security and User Interface. Writing on the Windows Phone Developer Blog, senior technical evangelist JC Cimetiere explains that Microsoft plans to expand the coverage of the API mapping tool for both Android and iOS, although developers shouldn't expect mapping for all Windows Phone APIs. In addition, Microsoft will incorporate features from the forthcoming Windows Phone 7.1 (a.k.a. "Mango") sometime later this summer.

Credit Microsoft for taking significant steps to attract developers, but it isn't going to be easy. A recent IDC survey--this one conducted in association with mobile cloud platform provider Appcelerator--found developer interest in Windows Phone 7 still lags far behind iOS and Android, with only 29 percent of developers surveyed expressing serious enthusiasm for building WP7 apps. By comparison, 91 percent of developers are very interested in creating iPhone apps, and 86 percent express comparable enthusiasm for Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad tablet; 85 percent of developers are interested in creating Android smartphone apps, and 71 percent express interest in creating Android tablet apps. Developers may not direct their time and energy on Windows Phone builds until consumer interest flourishes--and for that to materialize, carriers need to put their marketing muscle behind the platform. A lot can happen between now and 2015, of course--and for Windows Phone to match IDC's projection, a lot needs to happen.-Jason