Microsoft unveiled a new set of tools for iOS (s aapl) developers to help them port their apps over to Windows Phone 7, part of an ongoing attempt to court developers to its new mobile operating system. The new package, including an API mapping tool, adds to an already strong set of developer resources, and shows the company is serious about building momentum for the platform. But to really catch up in this game and significantly bump up developer support, Microsoft needs more than tools. It needs to sell more phones.
The company has still not fully come clean fully on how many Windows Phone 7 units it’s sold, and declined to share the information in its earnings report this week. The company said in January that it has sold 2 million licenses to manufacturers but it’s still hard to know how many devices Microsoft has put in the hands of consumers. What we do know is that it’s doing a decent job getting apps into its Marketplace, with some 15,000 now available. That was boosted initially by Microsoft opening up its wallet for big name apps. But the platform is on pace to outgrow BlackBerry App World (s rimm) and Nokia’s Ovi (s nok) store in the next year.
But for Microsoft to build momentum and close the gap on Apple and Google, it needs to show developers that there’s money to be made on its platform. And that means a sizable and fast-growing installed base. Right now, even with some extra tools, developers won’t rush to support Windows Phone 7 because there are better uses for their resources in building apps for the iPhone, iPad, Android phones and tablets.
That’s the picture we got from the latest Appcelerator/IDC developer survey, which found that developer support dropped from 36 percent for Windows Phone 7 in January to 29 percent in April. Windows Phone 7 still managed to become the third most popular platform after iOS and Android because BlackBerry dropped more sharply. But it underscores the hurdles that these other platforms face in trying to be a solid No. 3 challenger. Unless you have a lot of sales momentum and money-making potential, time is better spent on iOS and Android. The developer survey found that 62 percent felt it was impossible to catch up to Apple and Google while another 46 percent said they had their hands full with iOS and Android.
Now, this is not say that Microsoft shouldn’t put out better developer resources. The new mapping tool is a step in the right direction, helping iOS developers find their iOS API calls and easily look up the equivalent classes, methods and notification events for Windows Phone 7. It’s still limited right now to three categories of APIs. But Microsoft said it will eventually expand the scope of its tools and is working to bring the same resources to Android. I think this can still help with some developers looking to dabble in WP7 and some that have the extra resources and time. But unless these tools get a lot more robust and make porting vastly easier, don’t expect this fuel a developer bonanza. The real momentum swing will happen when developers sense they can’t afford not to invest in Windows Phone 7. And so far, Microsoft hasn’t proven that to them.