After moving back and forth between new iPhone and Android handsets and my Lumia 930 Windows phone over the past few months, I’ve come to an uncomfortable conclusion: Unless Microsoft can overcome the app gap, my favorite mobile platform is doomed.
Fortunately, Microsoft does have a solution to this problem, it’s just reluctant to make it happen. That is, as I reported back in April, Microsoft has long been working on technology that would enable Windows 10 users—including those on phones, where this makes the most sense—to run Android apps.
I wrote that previous article on the eve of this year’s Build event, where Microsoft announced a scaled-down version of its Android-on-Windows capabilities: Using a technology called Windows Bridge for Android, and previoulsy code-named Project Astoria, Microsoft will allow developers to easily port their Android apps to Windows 10/Windows 10 Mobile.
Astoria is only a small part of what I had previously described. But lest there be any doubt that Microsoft has been in fact working on the technology I did describe, know that a leak over the summer did in fact let Windows phone users run Android apps right on their handsets. That is what I described: The ability of an end user to arbitrarily run Android apps on their Windows phone.
Back in April, I described the downsides to running Android apps on Windows phones. It would have a negative impact on the universal app platform, for starters, since there would be no reason for developers to learn a third platform if their existing Android apps would just work. In short, it would accelerate the end of Windows as a mainstream computing platform. And that is bad, right?
Maybe in the abstract. But with phones especially, that’s already happened anyway. And if Windows phone fans such as myself really want this platform to survive, Android app compatibility may be its only hope. And even then it’s a long shot.
Here’s how I came around to this.
After using iPhone and Android for several weeks, moving back to my Windows phone—running either Windows Phone OS 8.1 or Windows 10 Mobile preview, no matter—was both familiar and an instant reminder of why Microsoft’s platform is so wonderful. The user experience is just so much more sophisticated than that of Android or iOS (iPhone), for all the reasons I’ve already enumerated.
Now, Google and Apple are making inroads on the UX in their mobile platforms by pushing similar Google Now/proactive Siri technologies that lessen users’ need to “whack a mole” their way through the others unsophisticated Android and iOS environments. But regardless, the sea of icons that today constitutes the primary UX of both Android and iOS hasn’t stunted the growth of these systems at all. And for most users, the real UX of their smart phone—or tablet—isn’t the home screen. It’s the apps.
And that’s what kills Windows phone.
Even for me, someone who professes not to really care to much about most apps, the switch from Android and iPhone back to Windows phone was difficult. HERE Maps and Drive are fine apps, unless of course you really need to know what the traffic is like right now, and in this and many other ways, Google Maps is pretty much the only solution worth discussing. Yes, HERE has downloadable maps, which is a neat feature. But working maps are more important. There is Google Maps, and then there is nothing else.
But the real killer is more subtle. It’s the smaller, necessary apps that just make life easier on a daily basis. For example. I was rushing to the local commuter rail station on Friday to get into Boston for a meeting, but I had no cash, and no way to get any nearby. How would I pay for the train? My wife joked that it was too bad I used Windows phone, since the MBTA mTicket app on both Android and iOS would let me buy tickets over the air. Fortunately, my iPhone was in my bag, so I installed the app and bought the tickets. If I had only had my Windows phone, I would have missed the train, since I would have needed to have gone and found an ATM machine.
Now imagine being able to run Android apps on Windows phone. We’d keep the best part of Windows phone—the user experience—plus whatever special Windows phone features we really care about, like the cameras in high-end Lumias. But we’d also get the best part of Android, it’s only good part, really, its apps. For users, this would be a win-win.
Obviously, there are difficulties in getting foreign platform apps running on Windows phone. They have certain services expectations in many cases, for example, and some apps may never work without some behind-the-scenes work. I’m not being naive about this, and I understand that running another platform’s apps is just another form of capitulation. I just think it’s time to move in this direction. Because we’ve already capitulated anyway.
We need Android apps on Windows phones. I just don’t see any way out of this.