While Android (s goog) and iOS (s aapl) are running away with the smartphone market, the biggest question is who, if anyone, will become a viable third contender. Scott Lahman, CEO and founder of TextPlus, maker of the popular TextPlus communications apps, is betting on Windows Phone 7 (s msft). The company has just released its TextPlus messaging app on Windows Phone and expects to roll out its TextPlus Free Calls VoIP companion app in the first half of this year.
This is despite the fact that RIM (s rimm) still has a much larger installed based than Windows Phone 7, and Skype, which Microsoft bought for $8.5 billion, is now finally in beta on the Windows Phone platform. Lahman said even with the competition from Skype, Windows Phone is just an elegant platform that creates great user experiences. And that will allow TextPlus to compete well against Skype.
“The second we saw the OS and (Nokia) Lumia (s nok) devices, we knew we wanted to support it,” said Lahman. “It’s a beautiful OS with a fresh take on what a phone OS can look like and that’s motivation for us to innovate. The OS brings elements that would be buried vertically to the top and you can see all your conversations, communities and contacts lists very easily. And you can pin specific conversations to the home screen. It’s elegant, easy to use, and it puts all of the elements at your fingertips.”
TextPlus, which connects to traditional PSTN phone systems, allows people to message for free using a dedicated phone number. It has racked up 27 million registered users and is now doing 110 million messages a day and has recorded 27 billion messages sent to date. In December, it got into the voice game with the TextPlus Free Calls VoIP for iOS and Android.
Lahman said TextPlus looked at launching a BlackBerry app a couple years ago, but couldn’t get it up to the quality level it wanted. And then when RIM announced a shift to a new operating system, Lahman said the company put further development on hold until it can get a better sense of what BlackBerry 10 looks like. But even as TextPlus waits, Lahman said it’s pretty clear that Windows Phone will be third place competitor in the market and should eventually displace BlackBerry.
“We didn’t need to be convinced by the numbers but by the user experience,” he said. “I would bet on Nokia and Microsoft to bring some powerful momentum here. These are some hungry organizations.”
Lahman is impressed with the slick panoramic view inside WP7 apps — the Metro user interface — allowing people to swipe between screens rather than click on tabs. And he said even the ability to personalize the app with same accent color from Windows Phone is also a help. Microsoft isn’t funding the app, but Lahman said it is providing some marketing help. That speaks to Microsoft’s continuing need to pursue marquee apps for its smartphone platform, which is now up to more than 70,000 apps.
These kinds of decisions to support Windows Phone over BlackBerry highlight some of the ongoing challenges for RIM. Even though ComScore reported that BlackBerry has 15.2 percent of smartphone users in January, way ahead of Windows Phone at 4.4 percent, RIM still trails in the mind of some developers. An Appcelerator/IDC developer survey published in November found that developers had begun showing significantly more interest in Windows Phone than BlackBerry for the first time. Things are looking up with some more support for the BlackBerry Playbook tablet OS. BlackBerry App World app store is now up to more than 60,000 apps and RIM reported that 13 percent of BlackBerry developers make more than $100,000 from their apps. But with BlackBerry 10 not expected to launch until late this year, RIM stands to lose more ground to Windows Phone among smartphone developers.
Again, RIM may still turn things around with BB10. And TextPlus is just one developer. But the battle for third place will be affected by who can amass the most developer support. RIM can’t afford to be the fourth choice for developers or passed over because of the perception that developers can make better apps on rival platforms. It needs to keep attracting developers or the future that observers like Lahman predict will become a reality.