Microsoft’s mobile platform is still dead.
According to figures shown to Business Insider by research firms Gartner and IDC, Microsoft’s mobile platforms — which include Windows Phone and Windows 10 Mobile — have between 75 million and 77 million users. To put that in perspective, Apple sold 75 million iPhones in the first quarter of 2015 alone.
In order to have any chance at reviving something from the wreckage, Microsoft is going to have to think creatively, which may mean creating a “forked” version of Google’s Android that comes with the company’s own services in place of Google’s.
What would that mean? The source code for Android is released under an open source licence, which means it’s freely available for anybody to see and modify. Microsoft would simply take a recent version of it, add links to its own apps and services, and maintain that version in parallel to whatever Google does with the main version of Android. This is exactly what Amazon did with Android a few years ago when it started building the Kindle Fire tablet.
Intriguingly, when a reporter asked Microsoft executive Julie Larson-Green about the possibility earlier this month, she didn’t outright deny it. Instead, she said only, “We’ll go wherever our customers are.”
While this idea may seem rash, Microsoft has already started laying the groundwork.
Laying the groundwork
Since taking over as CEO in February 2014, CEO Satya Nadella has made several moves toward Android:
- Microsoft announced a strategic partnership with CyanogenMod, the maker of one of the most popular Android forks, whose CEO has said he wants to wrest control of Android from Google. The partnership means that Cyanogen users get “apps and services across core categories, including productivity, messaging, utilities, and cloud-based services” from Microsoft.
- Microsoft has acquired four startups, all of which contribute a key piece of the mobile puzzle that was missing before: Acompli (email on mobile); Sunrise (mobile calendars); Wunderlist (a mobile to-do list); and Double Labs (maker of the most popular Android lock screen).
- Microsoft filed for a patent (9,003,173) that allows for “different levels of operating system [to] boot so as to provide users with rapid access to certain mobile device functionalities” (i.e. dual-booting Android and Windows 10 Mobile).
- The company is launching a new lock screen app for Android — based on technology from Double Labs — within the next two weeks.
What would the Microsoft fork look like?
The most well known Android fork is developed by CyanaogenMod and it looks a lot like normal Android does, except with a few key differences.
Due to Google’s rules, anyone can take the code that makes up Android, but not everyone gets to include Google’s services — such as Maps, Mail, and so on — unless they pass a rigorous test. Microsoft’s version of Android would most likely come bundled with the company’s equivalent services and apps, not Google’s.
Beyond core services, Microsoft could entice developers onto working with Android because the core operating system is something they are already familiar with. The company has already demoed a way of easily transporting Android apps to Windows and so a similar technique could be deployed to get Windows apps onto Android, or the “fork” that Microsoft creates.
The user interface would most likely resemble Windows 10. Microsoft has made a big deal out of unifying the experience across multiple devices and the Android phone would have to conform.
Haven’t we heard this all before?
Microsoft has already made an Android phone: The Nokia X, released in 2014, ran a “forked” version of Android and replaced the missing services with Microsoft’s. The hardware was praised but the software shunned. Engadget wrote that the X had a “confusing ecosystem and numerous performance issues.”
If Microsoft ever experimented again, it would likely spend more time honing the user experience insofar as software goes, rather than simply focusing on making nice and robust hardware. The Lumia devices are already accepted as high-quality, leaving it up to the software to entice users.
Why would Microsoft bother?
Microsoft’s big problem on mobile has been in attracting app developers. Developers don’t want to bother writing apps for Microsoft’s meager 3% mobile marketshare worldwide, but Microsoft can’t sell more phones without more apps. It creates a vicious cycle that’s hard to break.
But Android is the most popular operating system in the world, with one out of every five people on earth owning an Android device. And there are a lot of Android apps out there, all of which would almost definitely run on any operating system variant that Microsoft cared to make.
With a deeper control over the operating system, Microsoft can again follow Amazon’s lead and push its own services first. A Microsoft phone running Android would almost definitely have Bing search as the default and Groove Music as the default music app, just for starters.
That deeper level of control also ensures that Microsoft can make sure that its mobile apps run the way that it always intended. In the same way that the Surface Book laptop, just announced, presents Microsoft’s ideal way to run Windows 10, a custom version of Android could provide the best way to run the company’s mobile apps — just like Google does with the version of Android and related services it ships on its own Nexus devices.
And so, while Microsoft has otherwise redoubled its support for its troubled efforts to push Windows on a phone, the company would be absolutely bonkers not to at least be considering a Hail Mary towards Android as a way to push its products.