09 February 2014

Should Microsoft kill Windows Phone and switch to Android?

I’ve just had an interesting idea (which is pretty rare at the end of a long, hard week). What if Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella, drops Windows Phone in favor of Android? This might seem crazy, given the amount of time and money that Microsoft has put into Windows Phone but desperate times call for desperate measures, right? Adding credence to this idea is the Nokia X (codenamed Normandy) a Lumia-style phone that runs Android. This mid-range phone, despite Microsoft’s acquisition of Nokia, still looks like it’s going to come to market this spring. Is it possible that Microsoft is waiting to see how the Nokia X does, before making a decision on the continuation of Windows Phone?

Now, there is obviously a lot of inertia against this idea. Microsoft has worked very, very hard to make Windows Phone a viable third option alongside iOS and Android. It’s not quite there, but it’s getting tantalizingly close. Presumably, Windows Phone 8.1, due out in the first half of the year, will finally push us over the “hey, this is actually really cool” threshold. Likewise, and perhaps more importantly, Microsoft has spent a lot of time and money cultivating an army of Windows Phone app developers developers that, confronted with the runaway success of iOS and Android, probably took a lot of convincing.

Skype, phone dialler, and other apps on Nokia’s X (Normandy) smartphone, running a custom version of Android

But, at some point possibly soon Microsoft may just have to cut its losses and make the jump to Android. The hard truth is that Windows Phone, despite being on the market for over three years, has a worldwide market share of just a few percent. 2013 was a good year for Microsoft, with the success of Nokia’s Lumia phones almost doubling Windows Phone’s global market share but, really, when you get right down to it, going from 2% to 3.5% isn’t something to get all that excited about. In the same time period, Android went from 75% of the market (2012) to 81% (2013). Unless something utterly catastrophic happens to Android or iOS unless Windows Phone can somehow grow faster than Android this situation is unlikely to ever change.

Forking Android

If Microsoft did decide to switch its mobile efforts to Android, it would likely end up forking the Android Open Source Project and making its own version, just like Amazon. Judging by leaked photos of the Nokia X, which has a UI that looks a bit like Windows Phone, it looks like Nokia might’ve already begun the process. Microsoft would then have to make a very important decision: Whether to seek Google certification and access to Google Play’s library of one million apps, or to strike out on its own, like Amazon. The second option might seem a little bit crazy after the painstaking process of building an app ecosystem for Windows Phone, but the Amazon App Store seems to be doing okay. Microsoft wouldn’t have to get developers to write brand new apps for its Android phone it would just have to get developers to re-submit their apps, perhaps with a few tweaks for any UX disparities.

There’s no reason that your Microsoft Account couldn’t be used to automatically populate your contact list, sync to OneDrive, and bring over many of your other Windows Phone settings. Microsoft already has a fair bit of experience developing for Android, too; Skype, Microsoft Office, and all the various connectors for your PC are already there. There is already an Android version of Nokia’s Here maps. As far as Microsoft is concerned, moving to Android wouldn’t be that painful (thousands of developers, who have spent millions of hours writing Windows Phone apps might be a bit upset, though).

It actually makes quite a lot of sense.

It’s also worth pointing out that Microsoft also appears to own a lot of patents related to Android. Over the last few years, Microsoft has successfully negotiated licensing deals with every major Android device maker. There are rumors that Microsoft gets as much as $15 per Android device sold, resulting in billions of dollars per year in revenue (much more than Windows Phone makes). If Microsoft forked Android, it would be able to undercut other Android device makers significantly or, alternatively, it would make one hell of an incentive for device makers to switch from Google’s flavor of Android to Microsoft.

What a Windows 9 device might look like

Windows 9

Another possibility, which I’m quite fond of, is that Windows Phone is probably going to disappear anyway. Microsoft has dropped a few hints that it’s moving towards a single, unified platform for smartphones, tablets, and PCs likely starting with cross-compatibility between Windows Phone and Windows apps, but eventually the whole kit and caboodle could be merged. In such a scenario, it’s possible that Android could be kept on as a cheap, low-end alternative which is exactly what Nokia appears to be doing with the Normandy/X.

When all’s said and done, though, it’s hard to say whether it would actually beadvantageous for Microsoft to switch its mobile efforts to Android. It’s tempting to say “go on, do it, what’ve you got to lose?” but, really, that’s not exactly a sound business decision. There is absolutely no guarantee that a Microsoft fork of Android would be a success. The hardware would almost certainly be nice, but the software ecosystem the most important bit is hard to predict.

Microsoft would be starting back at square one with 0% of the market, and it would still be an uphill struggle against its two nemeses neither of which are going to stand still while Microsoft tries to turn the oil tanker around. Ultimately, even with a new CEO at the helm, I doubt Microsoft has the balls to switch to Android. It sure would make the mobile market a bit more exciting than the current two-horse race, though.


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