Microsoft Begins Restoring 'Invisible' Windows Phone Apps

Customers purchasing the new HTC Windows Phone 8X - the first to use Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 - may have faced an odd lack of some popular music apps, issues which Microsoft addressed on Monday.

On Friday, Spotify, Slacker, TuneIn and podcast app 8Tracks didn't show up on the version of Windows Phone that’s built into the phone itself. But they did appear on the Web-based version of the store - which, most likely, a new customer would never bother visiting if they couldn't find the app on the store itself.

The problems could be tied to be a few possibilities: First, the HTC 8X devices given to members of the press at the recent Windows Phone launch to test were labeled as pre-production hardware, even though the final 8Xes shipped Friday. Another possibility is that Windows Phone isn’t showing apps it deems incompatible with Windows Phone 8, even though, in some cases, the app is compatible. There’s also the possibility that it’s a holdover from a digital certificate glitch that Microsoft discovered and supposedly fixed in mid-August, that prevented apps from being published for a short time. 

The most likely reason, according to Ryan Polivka, the director of marketing for TuneIn, is that Windows Phone 8 hasn't transferred all of the other apps over to the new mobile operating system. "The reason we're not in the Marketplace right now for W8 is because the ingestion engine hasn't completed making all WP7 apps available on W8," he wrote in an email Monday. "Apparently this should be resolved within a few days."

Whatever the reason, however, these “invisible” apps only exacerbate one of the perceived problems with the Windows Phone platform: a lack of apps.

Playing Catch-Up

Kevin McLaughlin, a Web developer with Level 3 Communications, first highlighted the issue for me in the comments section of ReadWrite’s hands-on with Windows Phone 8, where I noticed that streaming-radio app Slacker didn’t appear to be available for Windows phone, based on the on-phone search. “These have been in the store for some time but no one can find them for some reason even though a simple search with the name brings them up,” McLaughlin wrote of Slacker and Rovio’s Angry Birds. “I have found this with multiple apps people say are not in the store.”

He was right. As of Friday, listings for Slacker, TuneIn and 8Tracks appeared on the Web page, but not on the phone. Gas Buddy was also in the same camp, although most of the invisible apps seem, apparently coincidentally, to be clustered around music.

After ReadWrite contacted Microsoft on Friday, however, some of the apps began resolving. Slacker was restored as of Monday morning, and now appears within the Windows Store. Spotify, an app that lacked even a Web page, also appeared on the phone, but with a note that it wasn't downloadable due to the 480x800 resolution that the HTC 8X uses.

It’s likely that an app like Gas Buddy doesn’t show up because, unlike Android, some apps written for earlier versions of the Windows Phone aren’t compatible with Windows Phone 8. It’s one of the unfortunate legacies of the Windows Phone 7 platform that will isolate apps designed for Windows Phone’s early adopters - which some have dubbed a “sucker punch” against Windows Phone fans. If GasBuddy.com doesn’t update the app, it will fade away, trapped in the shrinking puddle of Windows Phone 7 devices.

Quantity vs. Quality?

Android, which counts more than 400,000 “regular” apps, according to AppBrain (plus 150,000 of what AppBrain deems “low-quality” apps), still holds a commanding lead over Windows Phone. But Google recently told Bloomberg that the number of apps is 700,000, the same number Apple claims to have. Microsoft executives said at the Windows Phone 8 launch that Microsoft’s Windows Phone app ecosytem now includes 120,000 apps across 191 countries, including 46 of the top 50 most heavily used apps on other platforms. Microsoft appears to want to match the other two platforms in quality, rather than quantity.

Part of Android’s advantage, however, is that even creaky, ancient Android apps still maintain compatibility with newer versions of the OS: Air Attack for Android, for example, was designed for Android 1.5, which debuted in April 2009. That allows it to remain in the Google Play Store, and keep selling.

But a spokeswoman for TuneIn said that the listing on the Windows Phone Web site, where the app was listed for Windows Phone 7, was a mistake. Polivka confirmed that the app was Windows 8 compatible. “The TuneIn website being out-of-date shouldn’t impact store discoverability,” a TuneIn representative added in an email. “But again, they are looking into this.”

Spotify, whose headquarters are in New York City and without power, couldn’t be reached. But interestingly, the company’s listing on the Windows Phone website has been eliminated. But on Spotify’s Web page, the company’s Windows Phone app supports several Windows Phones, including all Windows Phone 7.5 or “Mango” devices, although only for Spotify’s “Premium” tier of service. WMPowerUser claims that Microsoft revoked the “sideloaded” Spotify app earlier this month, although users have also posted an outraged 20-page thread detailing the app’s numerous bugs and calling for updates.

More Popular Apps Coming To Windows Phone

Microsoft representatives said late Friday that new, optimized Windows 8 apps will begin rolling out soon. “The Windows Phone 8 platform was designed to run existing 7x apps, but some may require a degree of optimization given the new hardware and software capabilities,” a company spokeswoman said in a statement. “We are working with popular developers like Spotify and encouraging all developers to test their apps with our new SDK to help ensure that apps and games run great and take full advantage of new features. We expect the catalog of existing app titles on new devices to grow steadily over the coming weeks and months, and a Spotify client for Windows Phone 8 is in development and will be available in Q1 2013.”

In early August, Microsoft revealed a technical issue in early August that shut down app publishing for a short time. “Some customers who try to download a new app may see an error message,” Microsoft’s Todd Brix wrote. “If they’re attempting to update an existing app, they might repeatedly be prompted to retry the update.”

On Friday, when I tried to push Slacker from the Windows Phone website to the phone, the process failed. (Pushing an app from the website to the phone requires the user to turn on the Find My Phone feature.) If that process fails, Microsoft sends a link to the app via email. The update process failed with an error code, 805a0194, a Marketplace error message. But the process worked fine on Monday. The only glitch I noticed was that my “history” of songs didn’t connect to those songs, but to “radio” stations auto-generated by the artist.

A Microsoft spokeswoman denied that Microsoft may have been tempted to cut out competition to its newly-launched Xbox Music app, which launched a short time ago. Both Spotify and Slacker offer a la carte searches and radio-style streaming, as Microsoft’s services does.

Overall, the number of “invisible” apps was small, and shrunk with the Monday updates. But music remains an integral part of the mobile experience, and app discovery is key to Microsoft’s future, as its Mimvi purchase shows. More than its competitors, Microsoft needs to ensure that the process goes smoothly.