Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) is so eager to have a panoply of applications for the next version of its Windows operating system that it has lined up design firms, recruited interns and sent engineers on an around-the-world road show to help developers get them built.
Unlike Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) and Google Inc. (Nasdaq: GOOG), which run the world’s largest app stores, Microsoft doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for programmers to come knocking when they want to create downloadable games, productivity tools or online magazines for its computer software.
As Microsoft struggles to keep up with a technology landscape that is moving beyond personal computers into a future defined by mobile devices, the company is under pressure to gain a toehold in tablets. Demand for these handheld machines is driven by apps, which Gartner Inc. predicts will generate $58 billion in sales in 2014.
“It’s going to be very important to have a lot of apps,” said Bill Predmore, president at Pop, a Seattle-based company that designs and develops apps, including a Windows 8 app for Major League Soccer. “You’re competing with the iPad. You have to have some compelling alternative to that.”
Microsoft, which is working on a revamped version of its flagship software – Windows 8 – this week released an almost- complete iteration called a Release Preview. The company also said for the first time that it plans to have machines with the operating system on store shelves by year-end holidays.
The machines that are most comparable to the iPad – which boasts more than 200,000 apps – won’t be able to run older Windows apps, forcing Microsoft to start from scratch. The company is racing to fill the gap because consumers won’t clamor for computers that lack an array of downloadable tools.
Windows 8 is the first Microsoft operating system for computers that use chips based on ARM Holdings Plc technology. These chips are widely used in mobile devices, including the iPad. Trouble is, Microsoft’s ARM-based devices will run only apps designed specifically for Windows 8 — and none of the millions of programs already available for Intel-based machines.
Hence the app-building drive. For much of February, app developers could come to Building 20 at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington campus and turn their app over to a Windows engineer who tries it out and provides feedback. Now Microsoft has taken that program on the road, visiting 87 cities, including New York, Paris and Guangzhou, China.
Developers who are earlier in the process – those with an idea yet no app – can attend a different program called an App Acceleration Lab to get advice on shaping their product.
Another Microsoft-led effort has been in place since September. The company has trained more than 80 design firms to aid or build apps for developers who aren’t familiar with Windows’ new design or design in general, said Catherine Brooker, a spokeswoman for Microsoft.
As with Windows Phone, Microsoft encouraged its own employees to write apps by waiving so-called moonlighting restrictions on workers, which keep staff from writing apps on their own time. Unlike with Windows Phone, Microsoft is not paying app developers to build for Windows 8.
The company is also running a 12-week paid internship program called the Foundry at its New England Research and Development Center, NERD for short. There, 22 college students in the program will build Windows 8 apps while getting training, product reviews and mentorship from Microsoft.
With traditional PCs, it wasn’t hard to convince developers to build programs for Windows, the dominant operating system.
Microsoft’s tablet challenge is steeper. It must win over app firms and developers that grew up building programs for smartphones and tablets, where Microsoft has little and no share, respectively.
Microsoft’s pitch: Unlike the old apps that don’t work with some Windows 8 devices, the new ones will be available not only to buyers of tablets, but also to the more than 300 million buyers of Windows PCs. That won over SigFig, a maker of a program that lets users track investments.
Some programmers remain unconvinced of the need to make games, magazines or other online tools for a software maker more than two years late to the tablet market.
Facebook Inc., the largest social network, has no plans to make a Windows 8 app even though it makes apps for the iOS and Android, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
Flipboard, whose CEO is ex-Microsoft executive Mike McCue, isn’t planning a Windows 8 version, said Marci McCue, head of marketing at the Palo Alto, California-based company. Flipboard’s app, which aggregates a user’s social-networking feeds, has built apps for the iPad and tablets that run Android.
Other big app makers, including Zynga Inc., PopCap Games, Twitter Inc., Pandora Media Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., declined to comment on their plans for Windows 8.
Companies such as SigFig or graphic-design software maker Corel Corp., make apps that work well on both tablets and PCs. For them, writing for Windows 8 is a no-brainer.
Other developers of tablet-focused applications will wait to see whether enough consumers purchase Windows tablets, said Laurent Bugnion, a senior director for European operations at IdentityMine, one of the agencies in Microsoft’s program that is working on Windows 8 apps for clients that declined to name.
“The Apple fanatics, who anyway won’t touch a PC with chopsticks, they won’t be interested,” he said. “But the pragmatic people will probably wait for a while and suddenly when we see a few good devices come out they will start developing.”
Netflix Inc. is another one of the companies working on apps for Windows 8, people with knowledge of the matter said. Some of the initial apps will be in the Windows store with the advent of the Release Preview.
Mobile games maker Digital Chocolate Inc. also plans to have games available for Windows 8 at launch, said Chief Executive Officer Trip Hawkins, while declining to specify further. Corel is working on several.
Before Pop started building its app for Major League Soccer, the team and employees of the professional soccer federation spent a day at Microsoft’s campus getting guidance from the company, said Kaylynn Kelley, who oversees Pop’s work with Microsoft. Pop had an engineer and a designer assigned to handle questions, which included nighttime calls that went on for two hours. The free app, which includes news, videos and standings, will probably be available in the next few days.
SigFig, whose app is already in the Windows Marketplace, received “concierge-like service” from Microsoft, said Patrick Cushing, the company’s product manager for mobile. For example, Microsoft looked over SigFig’s code and showed ways to make use of Windows 8 features they hadn’t thought of using.
Corel, which made its first program for Windows in 1984, plans to have an app in the store in the next few days for finding graphics and a Windows 8 Metro version of WinZip is slated for availability when Windows 8 is released. Corel too benefited from a lot of “handholding” from Microsoft, said Patrick Nichols, a unit president at Corel.
Extra help isn’t just for big companies. Microsoft is also assisting individual developers, such as 21-year-old music student Grant Kot, who graduated from the Julliard School last week. Kot had written a touch-controlled musical instrument simulation called Grantophone for Windows Phone and Microsoft wanted it for Windows 8. So a Microsoft developer who tries to promote Windows met Kot in New York. He hooked him up with a designer to advise him and got him a prototype Windows 8 tablet.
“I was pretty surprised with the amount of attention I got,” said Kot, who plays cello. “They’re putting in a lot of effort.”