Why Publishing on the Windows Phone Marketplace is Like Walking Barefoot On Broken Glass

We started developing Toshl for Windows Phone because we liked the platform and saw the potential in it. It’s a beautifully designed OS, even if the experience starts to wear a bit thin after a few weeks and a giant leap for Microsoft. Publishing apps for it though, has turned out to be a very painful experience. From time to time the tale gets so surreal and horrible I sometimes wish Franz Kafka were alive to describe it instead of me.

 

World outside the few largest markets does not exist

While it’s possible to download applications from the Windows Phone Marketplace in Slovenia and many other countries, it’s impossible for developers to publish them with their own account. You simply cannot register a developer account. We are not even talking about the possibility of accepting payments, it’s impossible to publish free applications as well. Why they would insist on such a limitation is truly baffling.

So Microsoft Slovenia is kind enough to publish all the apps from Slovenian developers under their account. While that was better than nothing, it also meant that we didn’t have the access to publishing our own app or statistics about how the app was doing. Everything could only be done through email with the Microsoft Slovenia employees. What that also meant is that any phone which we wanted to use for development purposes had to be physically taken to Ljubljana, to the local Microsoft HQ to be unlocked. Doable, but highly annoying and time-consuming.

Imagine badgering employees at another company to hurry up with the upload by email each time you need to publish a bug fix, let alone optimise the description of the app.

Impossible to move the app to another account

We kept working on Toshl Finance, got a lot of new users (with little thanks to Windows Phone), established a US corporation and got accepted into 500 Startups. Since we now had a US company we could finally get our own Windows Phone developer account, get the app there and live happily ever after, right? Not so fast, Mr. Naïve.

When making an account Microsoft’s site would not accept any of three credit cards. One credit card was Slovenian, one French and one US all issued by different banks so I’m pretty sure the problem was on their side. Luckily we were at the 500 Startups offices and were just talking to a Microsoft developer evangelist before and he helped us out so we could create the account without the credit card.

Once we got that done, we wanted to move the app from the old account owned by Slovenian Microsoft to our new one. We were building and improving the app for more than a year after all, got a considerable amount of downloads and great ratings on the Marketplace. As there wasn’t any way to do this in the web interface we contacted the support. The Slovenian Microsoft helped, as well as our helpful developer evangelist in the Silicon Valley. Result after weeks of wasted time: CANNOT BE DONE. They don’t have the “technical ability.”

Their answer was that we had to remove the app from the Marketplace and upload it all again. That meant losing all the download statistics, ratings as well as the inability of existing users to update through the Marketplace mechanism. To be fair, we have the same problem with Apple and the App Store and they’re being even greater assholes about it.

It was a tough pill to swallow, but we had to do it to actually have control over our publishing. We said: let’s do it quickly, like pulling of a band-aid. Take it off the Marketplace first, so we can keep the app name and uploading it the same day. What a mistake to make. Lesson learnt: never take off a live app until you have a replacement already up, rename later.

Arbitrary Marketplace certification ridiculous “morality” standards

Beacuse Microsoft (like Apple), manually inspects and certifies each app it takes about a week from the upload to the publishing of the app. Since the app was already present on the Marketplace for a year without a problem we assumed it should be a routine thing and the app will again be available to our users very soon. Wrong again!

It took A MONTH to get the app back on the Marketplace, during which time our users could not download the app, many of them paying users. While dealing with the outfall Microsoft and the Windows Phone certification team kept coming up with stupider and stupider reasons to decline our app.

First we needed to state the privacy policy again (even though it was already explained in the app and our Privacy Policy available on our site). Keep in mind that was all ok for an entire year before and numerous updates. Then they decided that we logged location data without permission. The tracking of the location of the expense was of course completely optional and up to the user, but it was true that it was marked improperly at one place. Again, that was fine for an entire year before then!

Then came the icing on the cake. The third rejection because our app used a Bing map (which isn’t allowed in China), but more importantly, our app was immoral and contained inappropriate material. As such it could not be published in Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, United Arab Emirates… Keep in mind that Toshl is a personal finance app, it’s not about porn or gambling. Even after contacting their support they refused to elaborate on what was the offensive element.

We do try to put some humour into the apps. For example the Toshl monsters say funny sentences while syncing. We went through them one more time and the absolutely juiciest we could find is “I saw that expense you marked as “other toys.” Naughty.” It shows up randomly during sync and for max. 3 seconds. That was enough to get us banned in all those countries. We had no choice as they wouldn’t explain which exact thing was the violation and our loyal users have been already waiting for more than a month. We also refused to censor ourselves everywhere else due to puritanism of some Microsoft bureaucrats. So we disabled the distribution in those countries and published again. Finally, we got through.
We still had to email all our users, as they couldn’t update automatically from the Marketplace.

Incompetent publishing tools

The publishing platform on create.msdn.com is of course built with Microsoft tools. Which means forms made in Silverlight. Which means PAIN. When our Windows Phone developer sends me the .XAP file to publish the app I usually publish from my Mac. I need to switch browsers to publish the app and even then it’s a horrible experience. Why?

Google Chrome: Cannot even open the submit form, keeps loading in perpetuity.
Firefox: The same.
Safari (what I use in the end): Can open the form, but each time I hit space in one of the text fields it jumps to the bottom of the page, making it impossible to edit any text and actually seeing it.

Furthermore the page is confusing and the statistics poor. Microsoft bury Silverlight once and for all!

Low numbers user numbers

The results in new users from publishing on the Windows Phone Marketplace are also very low. Negligible compared to the the App Store or the Android Market. I suppose you could also blame this on us and our promotional skills but we did quite a few things to get Toshl Finance better numbers on the Marketplace, got reviews on a lot of the Windows Phone dedicated sites etc. Quite simply there aren’t a lot of Windows Phone users. In the Toshl Finance ecosystem there’s even a few percent more BlackBerry users and A LOT more Symbian^3 and MeeGo users than Windows Phone.

Promotional bait and switch

We were talking to a Windows Phone developer evangelist a while back about how we could get our app featured in the Marketplace and get more users that way. We do have a 5 star rating in the Marketplace and the users love the app, problem is getting exposure. Don’t believe the 5 star? Check out the app on the Marketplace.

We wanted to get the app on our account first, how quickly that went you already know. They told us that we’d have a lot better chance with more Windows Phone specific features, like live tiles and to try and apply later on. Live tiles are a great idea, we love them and they really make understanding your finances at a glance easy, so we went for it.

Talking to the Windows Phone evangelist today we found out there’s basically no way to get into the Marketplace nomination program currently and that they’re only focusing on promoting the upcoming Windows 8 apps…. Not even on the phone (for which SDK isn’t available), but on the desktop. He also mentioned we should do desktop app as well. Yeah right. After a developer relationship like this, who in their right mind would hop on another “burning platform” of theirs.

Microsoft and the Windows Phone team: Get your act together! If you think you can make your platform matter on mobile while offering such experiences to developers you are sorely mistaken.