Windows + Android?

Windows + Android?Microsoft will most likely announce this week that it will enable customers to run Android apps on their Windows 10 phones, tablets and PCs. The timing ostensibly makes sense, as the software giant’s Build conference, held this week in San Francisco, targets developers. But I wonder what message this change will send to developers and users, especially at a time when the company is also pushing a universal app strategy centered on Windows.

Note: Based on the volume of comments this article has received, I would like to clarify something. Yes, Microsoft has been working on getting Android apps running on at least Windows Phone for quite some time. But I do not know if the firm will announce such a thing at Build. (Indeed, I openly question the timing.) Like many of you, i’m passionate about this stuff and fear the impact of such a move. That’s all this is: me expressing my fear of such a feature for end users. –Paul

If true, this is the opposite of what I wanted and expected. Indeed, when Microsoft first started talking up the notion of universal apps that would run across its various platforms—Windows, Windows Phone, Xbox One, Internet of Things embedded devices, Surface Hub, and HoloLens—I opined that truly “universal” apps would in fact also run on competing devices as well. At the time, I figured this would mean Android primary, since that platform is open and Microsoft has already starting building support for Android into Visual Studio. (iOS is a harder nut to crack because Apple locks down the platform.)

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Letting universal apps run on Android would open up the market to Windows-focused developers and let me leverage their existing skills and knowledge. It makes sense. And I still expect to see this happen, if not in the current generation of universal apps, then in the future.

But letting Android apps run on Windows is another thing entirely. Indeed, it is the literal opposite of opening up universal apps to Android. And I question the logic of this strategy.

For users, the ability to run Android apps seems like a win. After all, the single biggest knock against Windows/Windows Phone is the lack of native apps. So a Windows Phone or Windows tablet user could fill in the gaps with that crucial handful of apps that simply don’t exist on the platform. Problem solved, right?

Not exactly. And not if this is about letting end users arbitrarily run any Android app on Windows Phone. When it comes time to upgrade, why would anyone choose a Windows Phone at that point? (A problem exacerbated by Microsoft’s focus on low-end Windows Phone handsets.) Instead, most will simply choose Android, since they are now comfortable with those apps, and for the many advantages that Android has over Windows Phone generally. This is, in another words, only a short-term fix, one that will evolve into an inevitable exodus of users.

For developers who have invested a lifetime of learning and mastering Microsoft’s platforms, Android compatibility is a slap in the face. This sends the message that they have wasted their time and that it’s time to move on to a more successful platform since, after all, the apps you create for Android will now work on Android and Windows/Windows Phone. This completely usurps the presumed value of universal apps, which I assume Microsoft will also spend a lot of time promoting this week. It will not sit well with the developers who go to Build.

For Windows, the effect is similar. We’ve already sat through a Windows 8 generation of three years in which customers and developers ignored the latest (Metro/Modern) app platform in droves and the only popular Windows applications—besides Chrome and iTunes, which are in a way their own platforms too—were utilities that made Windows 8 look and work more like Windows 7. I was already on the fence about the efficacy of universal apps making Windows relevant again. But the ability to run Android apps simply means people will do so. On Windows. And that Windows becomes less relevant as a result. It’s just a launcher for Android apps and those few legacy desktop/Win32 applications some of us still need.

I started using, writing about, and advocating Windows 20 years ago because Windows was, at the time, personal computing. There was Windows and then there was almost nothing else. Today, of course, the personal computing market is split between popular mobile platforms like iOS and Android, web apps, and Windows. And Windows is the smallest platform of the three in many ways, or soon will be. The ability to run Android apps on Windows—this utter capitulation—is not a “win” or a positive development, assuming it’s happening as it sounds. It’s a defeat, an avoidable suicide. And it makes Windows even less important than it already was. To me. To you. To the world.

And that’s too bad. One of the things I still really like about Windows 10 is the renewed emphasis on desktop computing. This is my background, and my greatest love still when it comes to technology. I’m looking forward to reexamining PC-related topics this year that I’ve not spent time on in years. But it’s increasingly clear that the traditional PC market going forward will be much like the workstation market of 20 years ago: a niche market of users with high-end needs like content creation. I’m actually OK with that, I guess. But it’s less mainstream too. And this is going to be a difficult transition, one that, I think, will be sped up by this ability to run Android apps on Windows.

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