It is well known that the main weakness of Windows Phone is not the OS code, or even the last-gen hardware – it is in fact the relative lack of apps. And to be fair, the situation is not so bad in an absolute sense, but nearly every Windows Phone users that I know bump into this at some point: there is always an app that you really want, which is not available on Windows Phone.
I think that Microsoft understands that well, and they are doing quite a bit of work to address the situation, but new rumors suggest that Microsoft is considering the unthinkable: run Android apps in Windows Phone.
Android Is Practically Not Forkable
"THIS VISCERALLY FEELS LIKE A BAD IDEA" This viscerally feels like a bad idea, but is that the case? On the surface, it sounds good, but in reality, even running Android apps on a powerful desktop machine with BlueStacks didn’t feel so great for me, so would that work on a handset? It seems slippery at best. With Nokia about to launch their first Android device, some say that Microsoft should create an Android derivative based on Google’s code.
That sounds interesting, but Google has made sure that the Open-Sourced version of Android would be very (very!) difficult to fork and maintain over time, since a lot of the interesting stuff resides in the non-open source parts that need to be licensed from Google. It’s a smart play, but ultimately, even the closest Android allies like Samsung and LG are frantically looking for ways out of Android. I’m afraid, that there is not such a thing in the short term (in the longer term, Samsung has their Tizen OS and LG has WebOS).
We have seen that movie before
"ASK BLACKBERRY WHAT GOOD ANDROID APPS DID FOR THEM" Going back to running Android apps in Windows Phone: haven’t we seen that movie before with Blackberry? And how much did that help them exactly? Sure, Microsoft is much richer, and yes Nokia is arguably more successful than BlackBerry, but still: if people ultimately buy your handsets because they can run Android apps, they could get even better, or cheaper, or more customized handsets (hardware-wise) that run Android natively.
Additionally, all this will do is send the signal that there is no point in investing in Windows Phone development, which will further fuel the original problem: Windows Phone needs more great apps, fast.
Long-term effort vs. short term panic
So what should Microsoft do? That’s of course a difficult question. In my opinion, Windows Phone has many things going for it:
- it’s one of the few OS that runs extremely well on low-end hardware, better than Android from my point of view
- the OS codebase is solid and can stand the test of time
- the APIs almost match the Windows one
- the development tools are awesome.
- Game development with DirectX could be a boon to the Phone platform. DX11-level mobile GPUs have arrived with Tegra K1. More will follow.
"MICROSOFT MUST WIN DEVELOPER SUPPORT, OR ADMIT DEFEAT" For all those reasons, Windows Phone is nowhere where Blackberry was, and it seems to me that they should either make every efforts to win developer support, or admit defeat.
- Microsoft should use its cash to make sure that every “top 1000” app runs well on its platform. Apps quality has come a long way since last year, but more is needed.
- The Windows “Metro” and Windows Phone API should be as close as possible to make Windows development the path of least resistance. Right now, there are still many things that are not properly documented and more sample code is needed. Microsoft’s documentation very much assumes that developers are already familiar with its SDK – that’s not enough, they need to attract new developers too.
- The Windows Market is kind of messy and frankly has too many junk apps. The discoverability needs to be better and the solution is to have more great apps that can float up.
- Windows Phone needs leading hardware. I had this discussion in a Facebook chat recently, and I disagreed that the awesome cameras of some Nokia phones were enough to qualify them as leading-edge hardware (last-gen SoC, not leading display, not leading edge modem…).
- Windows Phone needs the equivalent of the Galaxy Note 3, LG G2, XPERIA Z etc… in addition to the Nokia phones. The ironic part of this is that nearly all those phones could run Windows Phone if their manufacturers wanted to.
In the end, Microsoft has the same challenge it had last year, and the bottom-line is that there is some progress, but observers fear that progress is not fast enough, which is a fair assessment. I personally don’t think that running Android apps will do much good to Windows Phone as a platform, which has a great potential. The platform needs to prove itself, or will ultimately stay in the background.
Android didn’t become what it is only because it’s a great platform. I had modest debuts in fact. Android became what it is because it had massive handset manufacturer and carrier support because it was the only solution to the “iPhone problem” for the industry. Beyond apps, beyond code, Microsoft needs to convince handset makers that they won’t be commoditized to death and that they can differentiate their products. Android is not an OS, it is an industry.