Windows Phone has an app problem, a problem large enough to keep me steering clear of the platform altogether. It’s hardly a new problem, nor is it one exclusive to the platform. I’m talking about the limitations Microsoft has put in place to keep users from installing the software of their choice, outside the confines of the Windows Phone Store.
Early in the platform’s life we saw efforts to open up the OS to greater levels of user freedom, specifically in the form of the ChevronWP7 project, but even that found itself assimilated by Microsoft, neutered, and eventually shuttered.
That’s left becoming a registered developer (and paying up the cash for that privilege) the only way to officially be able to load your own apps on your Windows Phone handset (the one you already paid for, and by all rights should be able to do whatever you want with).
But then, last week, I saw something that gave me hope. While reporting on the announcement of Microsoft’s launch of the Windows Phone App Studio, something caught my eye: Microsoft’s Todd Brix wrote, “beginning today we are simplifying the developer phone registration process. Now, any developer can unlock and register 1 phone to load up to 2 apps. Registered developers with Dev Center accounts continue to have the option to unlock up to 3 phones and upload up to 10 apps on each.”
It took me a beat to grok what Microsoft was saying there, but the meat of it is that developer registration is no longer necessarily tied to any fee – when the company says that “any developer can unlock and register 1 phone,” it’s talking about any Windows Phone user, so long as they register their phone with Microsoft’s online tool.
Let’s make no mistake here: that is a huge step forward for the platform.
But, just like ChevronWP7 Labs before it, it’s not without its own share of problems. After my initial joy in realizing what Microsoft had done wore off, and I got to thinking more about the mountains of unnecessary restrictions still keeping Windows Phone from behaving as a general purpose computer should, I’m left feeling frustrated once again with Microsoft’s stubbornness.
For one, that device/app limit is just shameful. By simply opening this door in the first place, Microsoft is already exposing users to the specter of unapproved apps. There’s no material difference between installing one or two such apps on your phone and installing three or more, short of Microsoft believing itself to be justified in charging you to run software on your own phone.
It’s also a bit of an affront to serious Windows Phone fans, the ones more likely to be carrying multiple devices. Why should only one phone get this special blessing? Again, it’s Microsoft trying to monetize something that shouldn’t have a price tag to begin with.
Like I said, though, in spite of these hard-to-stomach limitations, this move is still progress in one sense. Of course, there are still the broader issues of control that continue to vex the platform. Thank god Microsoft finally started supporting native code in WP8, but other issues remain: it’s maddening that apps are prohibited from directly accessing the phone’s file system, for example.
For god’s sake, Microsoft, you were instrumental in ushering-in the PC era, where open access to hardware and software helped pave the way for what’s eventually led to this time of smartphones.
Stop dreaming up unnecessary schemes to prevent your user base from enjoying their devices as they see fit. Stop treating users as sources of income that need to be kept glued to the Windows Phone Store at all cost. These are users who have financially supported your struggling platform – look to them as peers, not petulant children needing to be protected from themselves. Give Windows Phone users the freedoms that all smartphone users deserve.