Foley on Microsoft

What Android's Inclusion in Windows Means for Microsoft

In a period of radical change in Redmond, don't be surprised to see Microsoft making moves (and partnering with rivals) in ways it never would have done in the past.

If anyone had told me a year ago that Microsoft might be dabbling with ways to put Android on Windows, I'd have laughed.

But going into 2014, I'm no longer chuckling. There's one truism about Microsoft these days: You need to rethink almost everything you thought you knew about the company. Whether it's a realization at the top that old ways don't work anymore or a "desperate times call for desperate measures" mentality (or both), Microsoft has chucked the old playbook.

A prime example comes from Microsoft's new unified OS team. When Bloomberg reported in October 2013 that Microsoft was approaching phone makers such as HTC about potential interest in running both Android and the Windows Phone OS on handsets, I put that rumor in the "yeah, right" bucket.

Last month, another report surfaced -- this time courtesy of The Information -- claiming Microsoft has considered/is considering a scenario whereby customers and carriers could choose either Android or the Windows Phone OS for their handsets. Dual-boot scenarios via which users could switch between the OSes and running Android apps on Windows Phone handsets are ideas Microsoft allegedly has floated by handset makers to gauge interest.

Some earlier leaks now make these rumors more believable. Mockups of Windows Phone hardware have surfaced that no longer feature the capacitive-touch buttons that are a hallmark of current Windows Phone handsets. And a leaked render of a Nokia phone, code-named "Normandy," is believed to be running some kind of Android Open Source Project (AOSP) variant. And then there's what's happening on the Windows side of the house, with Intel, AMD, and Asus all talking up the potential of devices that can dual-boot Android and Windows.

Some Microsoft watchers are claiming that Microsoft and its OEMs, worried by the simultaneous growth of Android and decline of PC sales, are just throwing anything at the consumer wall and seeing what sticks.

But some of my contacts on the Windows Phone front are saying there's more than just experimentation happening. Phone makers don't want to have to invest in building unique hardware that has only 4 percent worldwide market share. They'd rather be able to provision the same handset with Android or Windows Phone, depending on what a market segment wants.

At the same time, Microsoft would love to nix the perennial "there just aren't enough apps" objection to Windows Phone (and Windows 8.x, for that matter). If Microsoft could find a way to support Android apps natively in Windows, I believe the company would jump at the chance.

This isn't as far-fetched as it may sound. And it could provide Redmond with a way to lessen the possibility of Google boxing the company out by making it harder for Google apps and services to run on or with Windows and Windows Phone. It could also increase the likelihood that specific Android-only apps or games are available on Windows Phone handsets in a timely manner.

BlueStacks already allows Android apps to run on PCs, tablets and Macs via its App Player and Cloud Connect technologies. A lot of Android is open source, meaning anyone, even Microsoft, could use that code to build its own Android runtime that could enable Android apps to run on Windows Phone and Windows. The Google Play app store isn't open source, so Microsoft would have to build its own app store for Android apps, or use an existing one, such as SweetLabs Pokki. (Hey, maybe this is where Microsoft's $300 million investment in Barnes & Noble comes in, with the Nook Store becoming the app store for Android on Windows? Just a totally wild and crazy guess on my part, but it's certainly plausible.)

Obviously, there are numerous technical and strategic hurdles ahead for Microsoft if officials opt for the join 'em -- rather than beat 'em -- route with Android. Google likely can and will continue to implement new Android programming interfaces in non-open source ways, further fragmenting the Android development community. And there's the little matter of Microsoft's role as Android patent toll-collector to figure into the equation.

Sometimes, the new reality is stranger than fiction...

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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