We are floating in rumors and suggestions this week around Microsoft and Android, from a call for Microsoft to drop Windows Phone in favor of a forked Android to Peter Bright’s explanation of why that doesn’t make technical sense, to the long-standing rumors about Nokia switching its Asha line of feature/almost-smart phones from Symbian to an Android (AOSP) base. Starting with the imminent announcement of the Nokia Normandy aka Nokia X aka who knows. And then on top of that we have occasional rumors that Microsoft is working on a way to run Android applications on Windows Phone and/or Windows. What is reality here?
I’m going to stay away from the “Microsoft should just fork Android” (as a Windows Phone replacement) debate by saying “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”. Got it? Now, let’s move on to things that make a lot more sense. At least sort of.
First let’s jump into the debate about Nokia shipping an Android-based device as part of its Asha line. There are two questions that come to mind, the first being why not replace the Asha line with something based on Windows Phone? The second being, how can you ship an Android-based device when you are about to be acquired by Microsoft? Answering the second one first, read my blog about the legal situation during an acquisition. The sad thing here is that the Microsoft/Nokia Devices acquisition was supposed to have closed in January. If Nokia targeted the Normandy for announcement at MWC, that would have given Microsoft the opportunity to kill or bless it without creating an antitrust issue. But because China and a couple of other Asian countries have not yet approved the acquisition Nokia is going to proceed with the announcement without Microsoft being able to kill or bless it.
Now to the first question. It is clear that Microsoft could have worked with Nokia to use a stripped down Windows-based answer for next generation Asha devices. This could have been a derivative of Windows Phone 7, it could have been a derivative of Windows Phone 8 Embedded, or it could have been some pieces parts thing based on either Windows CE or NT. For whatever reason, including concerns about lack of focus (at Microsoft), that appears not to have happened. Instead, if rumors are to be believed, Nokia took the open source part of Android and created a Windows Phone look and feel on top of it as their new OS for Asha. Is this a big deal for Microsoft?
Maybe not. Remember that Asha is basically a feature phone bridging into the smartphone world. It need not allow installation of arbitrary Android applications. Nokia could in fact mandate that third-party applications only are installed from its own app store, that they are developed with cross-platform tools such as Xamarin, and that they must have an identical or super-set app in the Windows Phone Store. In fact, if done right, an Android-based Asha line could become a better feed for both customers and apps into the Windows Phone world than the S40 Series ever could be.
Symbian-based line is.
Is this an ideal strategy for Microsoft? No. Is it a strategy they would have pursued themselves? No. Is it a strategy they could live with post-acquisition? Yes. Could they make lemonade from this strategic lemon? Yes! Will they? Well, that is yet to be seen.
They could also close the acquisition and immediately kill off the Nokia Normandy/X and any future Android devices, even though doing so post-announcement would be an embarrassment. Bottom line: Nokia introducing an Android-based line of Asha phones is not the end of the world for Microsoft.
So on to the other interesting topic and the one that I think is going to become the real debate in the Windows Phone (and maybe Windows) world sometime soon. Microsoft appears to be getting ready to support Android applications running on its platform. Now, of course, if you have a full x86 Windows 8 PC you can do that today using the Bluestacks software. But I keep hearing rumors, some of them believable, that Microsoft is working with someone (and I don’t know if it’s Bluestacks) to bring a way to run Android apps to Windows Phone (and/or Windows 8.x).
I don’t think Microsoft is planning on opening up its devices to just obtain apps from Google Play or other arbitrary Android app stores. I think this is more of another way to do cross-platform development. That is, you can go to an app developer and say “you can use this software to get your app running on Windows Phone and submit it to the Windows Phone Store for almost no development cost, you’ll just need to do some testing, manifest work, etc.”. The app developer gets a low-overhead entry into the Windows Phone world, Microsoft can grow its app library much more rapidly, the end-user not only gets more apps but Microsoft can still offer them guarantees about app safety in the store. As Windows Phone volumes grow the app developer would then be encouraged to either write a native app for WP or switch to a cross-platform environment that lets them use native platform features.
Now of course running Android apps on Windows Phone would make the user experience less consistent. If Windows Phone were taking over the world that would be a reason not to pursue this direction. But right now finding ways to eliminate the app gap is far more critical to the success of Windows Phone than taking an absolute position on user experience consistency. Instead of Microsoft pressuring app developers to stick with the Metro style, let end-users put the pressure on app developers.
Will Microsoft announce something about support for Android apps at Build? I hope so. If Windows Phone is to essentially eliminate the app gap by the end of 2014 (as Joe Belfiore has claimed) then some dramatic things have to happen, and soon.
Now let me throw out two disruptive ideas.
One came to me as I was reading Peter Bright’s article on why no one should fork Android. Right now most Android apps only use services present in the open source part of Android called AOSP. Google is trying to push them to use services from its proprietary GMS layer instead. Since Microsoft can’t bring GMS to Windows Phone without a license from Google, and would likely limit apps to the use of APIs that are part of AOSP, could they also hope to (temporarily) derail Google’s push for app use of GMS? This would play not only into Microsoft’s hand, but into Amazon’s as well.
Second, what if Nokia’s move to use Android on Asha devices has been coordinated with Microsoft’s rumored plan to allow Android apps on Windows Phone? That is, the specs and rules for bringing an Android app to the Nokia Store for Asha Android phones is a subset of the specs and rules for bringing an Android app to the Windows Phone Store? Suddenly things make a lot more sense!
Ok, this is all fantasy built on speculation built on rumors built on wishful thinking built on more rumors. Some of it may be true, much of it will not be. No one should bet the ranch on any of it. At least not until Build hopefully separates reality from fantasy.