Instagram for Windows Phone Might Be Too Little Too Late

Earlier this year, I bought a Nokia (NYSE: NOK  ) Lumia 920, after using two generations of Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) Android phones. My initial impression was the same as most people who purchased it and Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT  ) Windows Phones -- a nice exterior design, cool hardware and software color schemes, and a unique operating system that was snappy and responsive. Unfortunately, the phone suffered from one fatal flaw -- its app store lacked many heavy hitters, namely Instagram.

Nokia's Lumia 920. Source: Techthirsty.com.

Instead of Google Maps, Nokia users must use Here Maps, or resort to using third-party apps such as GMaps, which attach a clumsy Google Maps overlay. Windows Phone users don't have an official YouTube app, since Google blocked Microsoft from creating one. Popular apps such as Angry Birds, which are free or ad-supported on iOS and Android, must be purchased on a Windows Phone. Windows Phone users also get last-generation, hand-me-down games, such as Temple Run and Draw Something, while iOS and Android users are already playing their sequels.

Even Facebook's (NASDAQ: FB  ) app woefully trails its iOS and Android counterparts -- a recent update finally added multiple photo uploads, although it still lacks the ability to insert stickers and images into chat messages. Other apps and games that iOS and Android users use daily are simply non-existent on a Windows Phone.

Why Instagram for Windows Phone is no big deal
One frequently cited example is Instagram -- the popular photo-sharing app that was launched for Apple iOS in 2011 and Android in 2012. The app was purchased by Facebook in 2012 for $1 billion.

On Oct. 22, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom finally announced that an official app would be coming to Windows Phone in the next few weeks.

Although the media made a huge deal about Systrom's announcement, it really doesn't mean much for Windows Phone users. Instead of waiting around like a neglected child for some attention from major developers, Windows Phone developers have already created unofficial, third-party versions of their favorite apps.

Are third-party apps superior to first-party ones?
The results have been surprising -- their unofficial apps are sometimes superior to the official ones in functionality and creativity. Since Windows Phone users have been asking for an Instagram app for over a year now, third-party versions of Instagram, such as Daniel Gray's Instance and Rudy Hyun's 6tag, have risen in popularity.

6tag, which is nearly indistinguishable from the official app on iOS and Android, allows filtered photo and video uploads, and also adds blur and collage tools -- features not found in the official app. Both Instance and 6tag are also updated more frequently than the official Instagram apps.

Rudy Hyun's 6tag. Source: screenshots from author's phone.

At first, Instagram didn't play nice with these third-party developers. Earlier this year, it changed its APIs (the access keys to its site), reportedly to "to fight spam to help prevent future attacks and increase security." This update rendered third-party Windows Phone Instagram apps useless, and prompted a backlash that resulted in Instagram reworking its APIs to allow Instance and 6tag back through.

In addition to 6tag, Rudy Hyun also created 6sec, a third-party app for Vine, which is considered another hole in the Windows Phone ecosystem. Vine is Twitter's popular micro-video sharing site, which allows users to share six-second long videos. Instagram responded to the popularity of Vine videos earlier this year when it added the ability to record 15-second long filtered videos to its app. Vine also recently provided a brief demonstration of its official Windows Phone app, which it intends to release in the near future.

Therefore, third-party developers such as Gray and Hyun are doing Microsoft a huge service by filling the gaps in the Windows Phone ecosystem by using APIs to build dedicated mobile apps, which have no first-party support. However, this can be both a blessing and a curse -- whereas Instance and 6tag are high-quality apps, there are also plenty of poorly made apps, which simply try to wrap mobile sites into an app.

Some steep challenges ahead
Although upcoming Instagram and Vine apps will raise Windows Phone's profile among smartphones, it still faces some daunting odds, as seen in the following chart of second quarter global sales and available apps.

Operating system

Global market share

Apps available (approximate)

iOS

14.2%

1,000,000

Android

79%

1,000,000

Windows Phone

3.3%

120,000

BlackBerry

2.7%

250,000

Sources: Gartner, industry websites.

Moreover, the reason that Windows Phone trails iOS, Android, and even BlackBerry in the number of apps is the current pecking order of app development.

App developers will usually create an app first for iOS, although it isn't the most popular mobile platform. The reason is simple -- iOS devices (iPhones and iPads) all have identical software and hardware configurations. This means that it is much easier to develop and test apps on iOS than it is to develop an app on Android, which operates across a fragmented universe of hardware configurations.

Therefore, if an app proves to be popular on iOS, the developers will then port it over to Android, knowing that it will be worth the effort. For an app to reach a Windows Phone, it usually has to go through both steps before it is even considered to be ported to Microsoft's tiny 3% market share.

Android and iOS users are also becoming dependent on the cloud-based ecosystems offered by Google and Apple, whereas Microsoft's ecosystem (Live, Office365, Skydrive) is comparatively weaker.

Microsoft is keenly aware of these weaknesses, which it tried to fix with cash earlier this year by paying developers to develop apps for Windows Phone 8 for a limited time. Microsoft even launched two app migration tools to help iOS and Android users find matching or comparable apps on Windows Phone to ease the transition between systems.

A final ironic thought
There is a bitter irony in Microsoft's current mobile struggles. For years, the company has thrived on selling closed-source software such as Windows and Office to users, while calling open-source operating systems such as Linux a "cancer".

Today, as Microsoft's mobile business treads water in hopes that other developers will follow Instagram and Vine and bring their apps to Windows Phone, independent third-party developers are filling in the holes with arguably superior apps, which would not have been possible if not for open-source web APIs.

It's still to early to pass judgment on the future of the Windows Phone. It will never be able to compete toe-to-toe with Apple or Google, but it might just hold on to enough of a niche market to remain relevant. Until then, Microsoft will have to depend on dedicated developers to pull it through this rough patch.

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Read/Post Comments (11) | Recommend This Article (0)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On October 23, 2013, at 11:39 AM, lee654 wrote:

    I'm not impressed. I think Nokia has the best camera. LS

  • Report this Comment On October 23, 2013, at 11:50 AM, GameBot wrote:

    This is a rubbish story.

    Firstly how many actual instagram users are there?

    Perhaps 100 million active users? little more , a little less.

    The people who care are but a small fraction of the market.

    Furthermore I keep seeing rubbish about apps.

    The first 1,000 apps are the ones that matter.

    the next 10,000 round it out.

    and the nest 100,000 is more than anyone really wants.

    1,000,000 is just nonsense hundreds of thousands are apps nobody anywhere is buying or even downloading for free. Vast amounts are retailer apps that just point to a site. WP8 can handle the web it does not need an app for a user to view amazon or Kroger ...

    instagram is big in the mind of the media in the USA , there are more hits to office online each single day than instagram has active users.

  • Report this Comment On October 23, 2013, at 12:54 PM, laramr1 wrote:

    Agreed. The app story is a tired one but people still think it's relevant because, well, people who should know better still write about it in either ignorance or their attempt to make an issue where there isn't one. How many of the iOS apps are tablet only and not phone conmpatible? What key apps can;t be replace a simple link to a mobile website? Games? WP8.1 and Xbox are pretty well integrated. All of these guys make pretty slick devices and OS's. I don't get why the huge effort to create perceived shortcomings other than to pump a stock.

  • Report this Comment On October 23, 2013, at 2:25 PM, Bull683 wrote:

    Golly, I thought 20 Window's Phone weather applications telling me the same exact information was enough. You mean if I jump to iPhone or Android I can get another 100 or so each? Where do I sign up? Get real, there's enough apps out there to survive on WP8 platforms.

  • Report this Comment On October 23, 2013, at 2:36 PM, Robarino wrote:

    Why would it ever be too late? If the lack of Instagram (which is nothing more then yet another passing fad) was holding them back, what's the excuse now? People change and update phones all the time, someone's phone contract is always up for renewal, and a new phone whith bigger and better features are always on the horizon. The number of apps in the store are irrelevant when you're always running the same 6-8 apps all the time.

  • Report this Comment On October 23, 2013, at 3:19 PM, boldog03 wrote:

    The real problem is Metro looks like crap, batter charge times suck, and w8 phones look and feel like painted bricks.

  • Report this Comment On October 24, 2013, at 2:05 PM, dhugos wrote:

    I guess I'm a fool for liking my L920 so much. I couldn't imagine functioning businesswise without it. The app story, though true, is a bit tired, but I wonder why I even need most of these hip apps in the first place. Youtube, Vine, Instagram, for example, um the alternatives seem quite excellent. The main thing is that Instagram itself apparently decided it needed Windows Phone in the stable, I don't pretend to understand the logic, but I'm guessing because they don't think the phones are going away, that people will start noticing them. The Lumias are excellent phones, you should check them out. And the wireless charging, that's cool and incredibly convenient.

  • Report this Comment On October 24, 2013, at 6:47 PM, donax666 wrote:

    I love how the beginning of the article sounds like a girl that just found out her ex-boyfriend is dating someone else and she has to justify why that girl isn't as good as her. I know y'all know what I'm talking about (Windows Phone users also get last-generation, hand-me-down games, Windows Phone users don't have an official YouTube app, etc)

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 9:25 AM, akshayar640 wrote:

    MSFT was a bit late with launching Windows Phone. But I see that Android is pretty much saturated. Same with the IOS. A few years ago we used to see mind blowing features but now all I see is fingerprint scanner(IOS) and air swipe(android) both of which are exciting but nobody really uses them after a while. And there are other factors: people get bored and the new generation welcomes change. I see a lot of my friends who own droids look at my Lumia and find the UI very smooth ,refreshing and beautiful. And I am sure their next phone is going to be a windows phone very soon. My point is, WP might be late but that is a good thing. If WP can match with the basic featured that others offer, we can see the migrations happening when the WP 8.1 launches next year. That's when great hardware and software comes together. WP already has all the basic apps it needs and Instagram (and others) is not late. It will be the right reason for many to migrate to WP. I have a feeling 2014 is going to be a great year for Microsoft.

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 3:38 PM, szdravko wrote:

    I had a number of androids, and samsung galaxy s3 was one of them. It's a fine platform and I tried a truckload of apps, just to find a small number of them that are actually usefull. On my current phone, Lumia 920, I managed to find all the same. The platform generaly feels better, and I would never go back to previous phones. It might be coincidence, but have you ever seen a Lumia users comment, with negative tone?

  • Report this Comment On October 29, 2013, at 3:44 PM, irsnews2110 wrote:

    what a BS review.

    Windows phone has nearly 170K and BlackBeary has less than 100K, where do you get these odd numbers from

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