The "buzz" exploded a few days ago with this site. "Official" application requests for Windows Phone 7, vendors and services that don't have a presence (an official one anyway) on the Microsoft phone platform. I have to ask though, do we really need an "official" app?
Okay, let's take a few steps back before we go forward. What exactly is an "official" app. I would say it's a) an app written by the service owner (Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, etc.) or maybe b) an app officially endorsed by the service owner. In any case it's considered sanctioned, blessed, whatever. Foursquare, Flickr, Groupon, Twitter, YouTube, etc. all have apps like this. In the case of apps like YouTube and Twitter you'll see the application publisher is Microsoft. These guys might have deferred the creation of the apps to Microsoft or the publishing or both.
People see these apps as *the* app they should get if they want to use that service on their phone. Apps turn into verbs and users are told to use Evernote to use their service on their phone. With the moniker of being an official app I suppose it carries a bit of levity as far as stability and reliability.
Or does it?
In the case of longevity it might be the case. As long as ESPN is on the air, they'll have an ESPN ScoreCenter app. Or will they? Budgets come and go so if I was a manager and looked at "trimming the fat" I might consider lopping off the mobile developers and abandoning that early. After all, how much revenue does a free app on a phone get you? I do think once the genie is out of the bottle that organizations will at least try to keep that division running and we haven't seen too many apps fall by the wayside. So yeah, it's probably a safe bet that "official" apps will stay around as long as the service is there.
On the reliability side it's a different story. What's the number #1 request on the user voice site right now? Facebook. Wait, that has an "official" app doesn't it? It was built by Clarity Consulting but looking at the comments on the uservoice site and on the marketplace you see things like "They need to fix this", "Add some new features", and "Need a lot of work!!". The Twitter app, IMHO, is another fine example of an "official" app generally gone wrong. No live tiles, it's been out for 16 months and it's only on version 1.3 and last time I used it I couldn't even do a "reply all" on a tweet. Frustrating.
Official apps may be no better than 3rd party ones out there so don't be fooled by the "official" title. Indie apps are built by developers with a passion, official apps might in some cases be considered an IT expense.
The first thing you have to look at, does the vendor or service have an app? On any platform. If they don't then the next question (besides should they) might be, is there a way to get one on there? Are there any data sources available. Obviously if they have a web presence then they have data but it may not be publicly consumable. If they do have an app, is it good enough. What are the reviews like? Is it meeting the needs of the many and providing a way to access their services to do everything. Is that the purpose of the app? Sometimes apps are supplements to the on-site services they have available and not a substitute. Aside from services, does the app work correctly, doesn't crash, is quick to respond, is updated frequently to align to new features the service offers, etc.
If they do have an API is it a) publicly consumable and b) is it full featured? One stumbling block I hit with producing an Instagram app for Windows Phone was that they didn't provide a way for users to register new accounts or upload photographs, a cornerstone to the service itself. This can be frustrating so before you embark on perhaps building something check to see if you can do it.
So what's the value-add for you building an application, either as the only application on that platform or a supplement to a broken or limited-functional "official" app? Are you making it better or filling in the gaps the official app is missing? What happens when the official app maybe catches up and delivers that functionality. Now you're playing a game with the official team and you might not win that battle. Something interesting with something like Foursquare is that the reviews are not too horrible (some good, some bad) but looking at the reviews and functionality of something like 4th & Mayor is that the official app came out long after Jeff Wilcox's version. Was it too little and too late? Jeff constantly updates the app not only for stabilization but new features. The reviews, UX, and stability of this "unofficial" app outweighs the popularity of the "official" one, although I think this an exception to the rule. Again, this is a good example of a labor of love vs. an IT project.
I think it's great we have the official apps on the Windows Phone but I think it's even better that we have public APIs, a nice development platform, and a passionate community that wants to do better. If all we do is accept the official apps then we're not pushing the envelope. Sometimes that's just not good enough and we as a community deserve better. Support it by showing your voice on sites like the Marketplace Request site, by blogging about it, and by pushing services to provide the ability for developers to step in and help out.
As for vendors and service owners, please do us a favor by exposing your APIs and letting developers do what they do best, develop. Focus on your service if you want and put it out there for others to pick up the ball and run with it. Keep on top of what's out there, help us by helping you, and you might be surprised in what we might be able to accomplish. It's like I tell game studios, focus on building your game. The development community will stand up and provide the supplemental tools that will build the community for you, you just have to give us the tools to do what we're passionate about.