Reporting by Yin Ho
In less than two weeks, judges start reviewing design submissions for the Fast Track to the Mobile App contest—an international Windows Phone app design challenge. The competition, launched last month by Core77 and the Windows Phone design team, challenges designers to create work productivity solutions tailored for the Windows Phone. The contest theme addresses the work we often find ourselves doing on our ubiquitous little computers (i.e., smartphones) and asks designers to consider how we might do it more effectively.
Applicants design the face of the app—no coding or further app development necessary—and enter anything from sketches to full color comps along with an app description. We're looking for great ideas and designs—we'll help the best ideas get built. Part of the prizing is to encourage our winning and finalist designers to take these great ideas and, if they need, pair them up with experienced Windows Phone developers so that these apps don't just stay concepts, but are actually made and launched in the Windows Marketplace, with revenue going to the designers and developers who made them. We'll be following the development process as the winning designs are transformed from concept into reality, and are launched in the Windows Marketplace. Our hope is to get as many thoughtful, interesting designs that we can, launched and out into the app world.
The Windows Phone 7.5, Microsoft's most recent mobile product and platform, was released this September, and has been receiving uniform praise on its 500+ improvements from the Windows Phone 7. With the release of the new Windows 7.5 OS (codenamed Mango), and the clean, uncluttered Metro user interface, it's been given the critical "thumbs up" for doing a lot of things right, with the consensus being that it's a worthy addition to the mobile marketplace. But, Microsoft's ambitions for the phone requires that it grab a bigger chunk of users and app developers. Right now, Windows has some 30,000 apps available, nearly double their number from six months ago. Though the growth is impressive, for comparison's sake Android has roughly 250,000 and Apple, 500,000. While Windows claim of having quality over quantity might be true, apps and app development are measures of confidence in a device.
Since it's a recent release, conclusions about Microsoft's sales performance in the mobile market are in let's-wait-and-see mode. However, the phone's design and functionality opens itself to some unique app possibilities. Live tiles can be double-sided and have multiple uses, and App Connect links search with apps (e.g., searching for fast food might yield a delivery app alongside other results). It's getting praise for Metro's out-of-the-box differences like its blocky, non-grid user interface and Window 7.5's integration of features like barcode scanning and song ID into the OS. The Fast Track to the Mobile App competition encourages designers to experiment with Windows phone particular functionality in app development. For example, for Foursquare's Windows app, they utilized the live tiles to pin 'places' and 'specials' to the phone's start screen. The phone is also notably person-centric, meaning that communication is grouped by person rather than medium, so, your chats, emails and texts from your best friend are all grouped under her as a contact, along with her chat availability.
The contest itself asks designers to think about developing for the Microsoft platform, and its differences from developing for it without having to get into the nitty gritty of building it out. There's a pretty thorough repository of information on how to do so if you're so inclined—Microsoft hasn't slacked in this area. But for Fast Track to the Mobile App contest, judges are focussing on innovative ideas and designs. The panel is made up of design and development bigwigs: Jill Nussbaum (head of The Barbarian Group's product and interaction design), Mike Watson (senior director of Windows Phone apps), Scott Wilson (founder of Minimal, former Creative Director at Nike), Rene Schulte, mobile software developer and Mike Kruzeniski, Creative Director for Windows Phone at Microsoft.
Resources for applicants include access to trial versions of Microsoft's App Hub and Expression, design information on the Metro UI, and Photoshop and Sketchflow templates for prototype development. The awards are plentiful and encourage future app development: 100 finalists receive a 1-year of App Hub subscription, the first 25 of those finalists that publish their app receive a Windows Phone and the App Hub subscription, and 5 winners get some serious development support in the way of an development deal and revenue-sharing partnership to create and sell the app in the Windows Marketplace, as well as a Windows Phone, an Xbox 360 with Kinect and an App Hub subscription. Submissions are accepted until midnight November 18th; winners will be announced December 12th.