Microsoft and an Android play

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.

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17 Responses to Microsoft and an Android play

  1. No says:

    Asha has nothing to do with Symbian.

  2. Edgar says:

    I don’t think Microsoft is going to port android Apps to windows phone or Win8.
    They have learned from IBM OS2 that allow cross platform apps could kill the interest to develop native apps for the host OS, in any case Microsoft as a software company must have to do what they do with Office, develop his own software for their OS.

    Autodesk is ignoring Windows Phone and metro Apps, why not develop his own CAD suit or just buy a established CAD software company, same with adobe and so on.

  3. AS147 says:

    I’d like to see if looking at this from another angle yields any benefits. What is the driver for these concerted MS adopting Android/Nokia adopting Andriod? I believe that Samsung is the reason. Google realises they are pretty much overly dependent on one OEM and whilst the relationship is good the potential risks are too high to be considered acceptable. So who else do you look for that can add the same sort of differentiated value? HTC? Nope, they are in big financial trouble. Motorola? Nope they haven’t got a coherent strategy and have been cast off in a fashion so they will be in a formative stage for a while. So who else has proven quality and differentiation and has a half decent brand behind them? Nokia. Even though the Windows Phone OS is quite heavily locked down by MS they have managed to carve a half decent niche for themselves by differentiation both at the hardware level (class leading camera, style and innovation like wireless charging) add to that a good set of free and compelling apps including maps and they are a clear target for Google.

    Now all of that may be brown runny stuff but if there is a grain of truth to it then I wonder about the current climate compared to when these rumours first surfaced. Back when they first popped up Nokia was independent and but they had just struck a deal with MS and bet the bank on WP. The noise grew significantly during the formative period of low sales etc. but Nokia stuck to it and are now getting some market penetration. Nokia is about to be owned by MS so the chances of an Android powered phone happening are even lower (even though the deal hasn’t been signed). Will this quieten down what has been a sustained media campaign to convince Nokia and MS to adopt Android on a Nokia phone platform? No. Will MS allow it to happen? No.I like your comments about the lower user experience/consistency can be forgiven for now as long as the app gap is closed however but it sis’t just about a congruent UI.

    Anything that doesn’t run as a native WP derivative for Asha is going to be a long term mistake because running Android apps in a non native manner on such a low powered Asha smart phones will produce poor performance and a bad UI experience. It would be cheaper and better in the long term for MS to inject MS technology into Asha. They should also do it soon! Unfortunately I don’t know if the deal with Nokia allows them that much control?

    So whilst I agree its a good move to get Android apps on WP devices to close the app gap there is a lot of danger to WP8 and 9’s reputation if performance stinks or writers bombard the press again with poor WP exerience.

    The other angle I would like to submit is how important is Nokia post the Steve Ballmer devices and services strategy now we have Satya stating day 1 “mobility first” and “cloud first” where do the MS focus and resources about Hardware sit. I would suggest owning or building your devices (Surface and Nokia phones) doesn’t fit. If MS are leveraging cloud based services do they still want to be competing on hardware? I think not. Whilst the OS and device are important it needn’t be important to MS to still be able to make a buck or two as they are moving to cloud and probably see the importance of hardware and the OS that runs it reducing

  4. They had no qualms in killing of a 1 billion dollar investment in the Kin platform from their Danger Inc purchase since it did not fit into their Windows everywhere mobile strategy.

  5. isummersmiles says:

    Reblogged this on Drizzles and Lightning.

  6. enoch says:

    Tech history is rife with marginal platforms which tried to bridge the application gap by running the popular platform’s applications using some sort of sandbox:

    Mac – running Windows applications with the Orange box(?)
    OS/2 Warp running DOS/Windows apps
    Linux with Wine
    and more recently the Blackberry Playbook with Android apps

    For some reason or other – maybe the inconsistent UX, the difficulty with keeping up with new versions of applications targeting newer versions of the other platform, the user’s perception/reality that they are a substandard version of the product, and maybe some others – this has not really worked.

    In fact, the only time that the sandbox model works is when the platform being targeted is owned by the same company and is about to be decommissioned – i.e. Windows 95 / DOS, Mac OSX / Mac OS.

    (Some may say the Bootcamp / Parallels / Fusion fall is a successful example – but they are not. These products were not significant factors in the adoption of Mac OS X.)

    • halberenson says:

      This is why I suspect that rather than it be a blanket tool for running any Android app it will instead be positioned as a cross-platform tool that developers will have to explicitly decide to use for “porting” and supporting their app on the Windows Phone platform.

  7. I have a question. If one can write an Android app and then port it to Windows why will anyone ever target Windows. Even in enterprise the skill set they will need is for Android and iOS. Will it not kill the market for Native Windows development?

    • halberenson says:

      Depends on if the center of gravity shifts to be more balanced. I think unifying Windows and Windows Phone will help with that. And it probably pushes more people to cross-platform tools anyway.

  8. waldtaube says:

    The question is once you do the initial conversion or emulation or whatever, is there a path for those apps to become native Windows apps, or do they remain “stranded” forever in a purely alien runtime? If the latter, and users become dependent on Android apps, Microsoft could get into a situation where they essentially can’t add features to Windows – any features they add won’t be supported by the apps people actually use, so they may as well not exist. So in that sense Windows will be “dead”.

    If the former, how?

    BTW, how does this relate to the web? Will not having Android support eventually (if it isn’t already) come to seem as ridiculous as not having a web browser on your platform? Could Microsoft adopt an all-in embrace/extend strategy similar to what they did/are doing with the web and the HTML stack? The key differences, of course, are that Microsoft have their own browser that they built and integrate with Windows, allowing web apps to use Windows features (e.g., taskbar integration) and even allowing “native” Windows apps to be built with the web runtime. And the standards for that runtime are controlled by a consortium, not a single powerful competitor.

    Could Microsoft adopt a similar “Android strategy”? Could they build their own “Android browser” for Windows (whether from scratch or through porting/forking Android open-source code), with extensions to allow apps to use Windows features, and a way for purely native Windows apps to use elements of the Android runtime (e.g., a Java projection for WinRT)? Could Microsoft, Amazon and perhaps Samsung and others form a consortium to try and wrest control of the Android standards from Google (or fork them)? This all seems far-fetched and absurdly difficult or impossible, but maybe a little more plausible if you think of it as a major strategic initiative for the whole company (like the web was/is), not just another bullet-point feature.

    I just don’t think an approach that doesn’t take on the question of “how does this relate to Windows native apps” is likely to do much good. And that’s a touch question to answer.

  9. Pingback: Microsoft Can employ Android apps with Windows Android with Windows | My Blog

  10. Pingback: Microsoft to bring Android apps to Windows | iTechnoBlog

  11. Peter Parker says:

    Nice informative blog. So now will Nokia going to launch Window based android phones?

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