Foley on Microsoft

Microsoft Builds a Bridge from iOS and Android to Windows

The company's strategy is aimed at attracting more developer support for its multiple Windows 10 platforms.

After more than a year of rumors about Microsoft bringing Android apps to Windows, we finally know how and when the company is planning to do this.

At the recent Build conference, Microsoft execs took the wraps off what the company is calling "Bridges" to Universal Windows apps. These Bridges are meant to provide not just Android developers, but also iOS, Win32/.NET and Web developers, with tooling to more easily bring their apps to the Windows Store. There's also a second iOS Bridge under consideration: One that would involve a Microsoft Swift language compiler alongside the just-announced Objective-C one.

The Android Bridge, code-named "Project Astoria," entails Microsoft providing an Android Open Source Project (AOSP) subsystem in Windows 10 mobile, so that Android apps run with relatively few alterations. Because Microsoft isn't providing a similar AOSP subsystem in Windows 10 for PCs, laptops and tablets, those apps aren't designed to run on anything but Windows Phones (at least at this point).

Before Microsoft announced these Bridges, rumor had it that Microsoft would be running Android apps in emulation on Windows 10. The reality is more nuanced and at least somewhat more potentially palatable to the existing Windows developer base. Microsoft isn't enabling Android developers to run existing Android apps unaltered on Windows Phone 10 devices. Instead, it's looking for these developers to create Windows 10 apps from their Android code base. Microsoft is hoping these developers will incorporate Microsoft's own cloud services including in-app purchases, ads, maps, game services, analytics, and so on and platform-level services such as contacts, photos, sensors, camera, file system, Direct X, and so on in those apps.

Why Microsoft has developed this Bridge strategy is fairly self-evident. The Windows Phone Store currently lags substantially behind the Apple and Google Play stores in terms of number of apps available to users. The lack of apps creates a kind of chicken and egg dynamic: Without a substantial number of apps in a store, developers are often reticent to port/write new ones. The Store needs apps to attract developers, but developers want to see a nice pool of apps before committing to writing for a new Store.

This catch is still true despite the size of the potential Windows 10 market. Microsoft officials have said they believe 1 billion devices, primarily PCs/laptops/tablets, will be running Windows 10 within two to three years. That's the target market Microsoft is counting on attracting Web, Win32, iOS and Android developers to create Universal Windows apps. To be precise, iOS, Web and Win32 apps will be true Universal Windows apps, able to run on all Windows 10 form factors, including Xbox One, Surface Hub, Windows 10 desktop and Windows Phone; Android apps are meant to run on Windows Phones only.

Beyond the question as to whether Microsoft is successful in getting its installed base -- especially its sizeable Windows 7 one -- to move to Windows 10, there's also the question whether the amount of work required to hasten existing apps over the Bridges to the Windows Store will be worth it. Microsoft execs said King brought "Candy Crush Saga" to the Windows Store using the Microsoft Objective-C compiler. But what about smaller developers attempting to do this without hand-holding from Microsoft?

In some ways, the Microsoft Bridge strategy is rather ingenious. And I'm impressed the company kept the iOS piece secret. The Bridges feel like less of a last-ditch attempt to save Windows Phone than we believed when we still thought all Microsoft was doing was providing an emulation layer. But will the Bridges do anything to beef up the overall Windows Store numbers, and deliver key missing apps in particular? The answers to those questions should become clearer as the year rolls on.

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's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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