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Why it matters when popular brands like HERE ditch their Windows Phone apps

Yesterday, HERE – the company behind mapping and location-based apps originally developed by Nokia, and later sold to an automotive consortium – made a surprising announcement. It revealed that its entire suite of apps – including HERE Maps, which had vanished from the Windows Store last year, before reappearing in January – will be permanently removed from the Store later this month, and will cease to function completely on Windows 10 Mobile at the end of June.

Within minutes, irate users had jumped onto social networks to vent their frustrations at the removal of the apps. Some expressed outrage over the withdrawal of software and services that they had come to rely on; others discussed their confusion over the technicalities behind HERE’s justification for their removal. But some, predictably, leapt to the defense of Windows, quickly declaring that the disappearance of the app is no big deal, and that people should already be using “better” alternatives anyway.

For some of these users, fans and others with a vested interest in promoting the Windows ecosystem, there was no debating their belief that the loss of such a high-profile app simply doesn’t matter. But the reality is that it does matter, and in order to understand why, it’s important to look beyond the ‘bubble’ of the tech community and out into the real world of ordinary users.

There’s no denying the fact that Windows Phone’s share of the smartphone market has plummeted, and given that it was never particularly large in the first place, it obviously has nowhere near the number of users that Android and iOS enjoy. Nonetheless, there are still tens of millions of Windows Phones in usage around the world, and of these, a staggering 97% are made up of Microsoft’s Lumia devices, a huge proportion of which shipped with HERE Maps onboard.

It’s easy to trick ourselves into believing that the people we know personally, and those we see most regularly – on social media and in comments sections on our favorite tech sites – are representative of the entire user base.

A bunch of my friends told me how much they love this feature, so surely everyone does.

A dozen people have told me this month that they really like my phone, so that shows that there's a lot of interest in this device.

I’ve seen at least five tweets in the last hour from people who don’t care about that app, and you’re telling me that it’s still popular?

Of course, this isn’t the case at all, and those of us who care most passionately about matters of technology must always make an effort to remember that. Beyond our sometimes-limited view of the tech world, there are many, many more users who come to rely on devices, features and apps in very different ways to us, and the vast majority of these users don’t religiously study tech blogs or pore through news releases from tech companies to understand the intricacies of their devices and the software that runs on them. Many, if not most, of these customers, simply buy a device, install apps from time to time, and expect everything to just work.

When something stops working, it is of course frustrating, especially for those with limited technical knowledge. But when an app that a user has come to rely on disappears entirely, it can serve to undermine the overall experience of owning that device.

Last year, for example, Bank of America (BoA) announced that it was withdrawing its Windows Phone and Windows 8.1 apps from the Store. The company directed customers with Windows Phones to instead use its mobile site – but as users soon discovered, the site didn’t work properly on their devices, stating that Windows was not a "supported operating system".

Of course, BoA added to the frustrations of its customers by failing to provide them with a suitable alternative. But even if the site had functioned flawlessly, consider the experience from the point of view of an ‘ordinary’ customer; not those of us who are inherently comfortable with apps and operating systems, but someone who doesn't care about how their device works, and who just wants it to function as expected and make things a bit more convenient for themselves.

That customer would have to endure the annoyance of navigating through a site that they may not have previously seen in its mobile format, going through the process of familiarizing themselves with its design and layout, perhaps even discovering that certain features that were previously available in the app weren’t so readily available – if at all – on the mobile site.

For the less experienced user, the disappearance of a valued app can make things very difficult

It’s easy for those who delight in the details of apps and software to trivialize this experience for such a customer, and to declare that it’s “hardly a big effort” or that “it’s not that difficult”. But if you’ve ever had to help a tech-illiterate friend or relative to find their way around an unfamiliar website or to get to grips with a new app, you’ll surely understand how intimidating that experience can be for those without the technical knowledge to give them the confidence to breeze through these sites and apps as you and I do.

Of course, when any big-name app is removed from the Windows Store, it generates headlines and buzz surrounding Microsoft’s continued struggle to attract and retain major apps. It's an obvious embarrassment for the company, and a clear setback to its ongoing plans to expand availability of apps that appeal to its customers.

But in a very real sense, for millions of users, the disappearance of an app can be immensely disruptive, particularly when it's one that they have come to rely upon regularly, such as a banking app or one for mapping or public transit.

All too often, when that happens, the cries of fans and others ring out, swiftly pointing out that there are alternative apps, better apps, that can do the same job. And in many cases, they’re right.

But while that’s a sound argument to present to tech-savvy users who have few qualms about switching from one app to another, it’s far less convincing to those who have been presented with a new pain-point on their device. For the user that views their smartphone as a device of convenience and function, losing such an app only makes things more difficult for them, and having to seek out an alternative app, and learn how to use it, only adds to that inconvenience.

When the selection of apps available from the Windows Store is already limited, this only serves to undermine the experience of owning a Windows device further. When users still can’t get the Starbucks app, HBO GO, Tinder, Grindr, their preferred airline, their local movie theater, or any number of other popular apps that their friends and family may have access to on other devices, the additional disappearance of a top-tier app that they actually use will inevitably leave some of them questioning why on earth they bought a Windows Phone in the first place.

No Starbucks for you

It’s sometimes difficult to understand that impact from the relatively narrow field of view through which many of us observe technology from day to day. But that ignorance doesn’t make the consequences any less real for those users who don’t share that perspective, and who – while enduring the annoyance of fewer apps, and the unpredictability of some apps randomly being withdrawn from their own devices – may jealously observe those around them enjoying fewer such complications on non-Windows handsets.

The ‘app-gap’ is a problem that has been well documented over the years. Microsoft famously declared that it would no longer be an issue by the end of 2013, but the fact that big brands – not just HERE, but also the likes of Mint, Path, Chase Bank, Nectar and others – have continued to withdraw their apps from the platform shows that the problem is alive and well.

Of course, there is renewed momentum in the Store thanks to Windows 10, and Microsoft’s new Universal Windows Platform (UWP) which allows apps to run across multiples types of devices with only minimal changes. Many major brands have launched new UWP apps in recent months, or signalled their plans to do so – and Bank of America is among them.

But as Microsoft’s mobile market share continues to fall, we may yet see more companies and developers removing their apps from the Store.

The next time a major brand withdraws its app from Windows, if you feel compelled to immediately declare that it doesn’t matter, or that anyone complaining should just shut up and use an alternative app, take a moment to think about what that removal will actually mean not just for you, but for the thousands, perhaps millions, of other people who also use it.

It may not matter to you, but for some of them, it might just be the last straw; the final annoyance that pushes them away from Windows Phone for good. And as far as Microsoft is concerned, with a mobile ecosystem that’s already struggling to attract and retain customers – and which needs growth to attract developers to create more apps in the future – that matters a great deal.

Additional image credit: Older woman with smart phone image via Shutterstock

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