Microsoft's relationship with Android: 'It's complicated'

Microsoft's relationship with Android: 'It's complicated'

Summary: The more I watch the evolution of technology, the more similarities I see between today’s Google and the ruthless Microsoft of the early 1990s. Can old age and treachery vanquish youth and skill?


See the follow-up article: "Microsoft's relationship with Android just got less complicated"

Microsoft is a 39-year-old company. Google is about to turn 16.

Both of those ages are major milestones for humans. It turns out they’re pretty interesting for giant tech companies as well.

Microsoft and Google are locked in a struggle for the future of computing. Both companies want to put their flagship operating system on every screen you own and allow developers to write apps that scale from handheld devices all the way to full-size desktop monitors.

This was Microsoft’s vision, as expressed in its 2013 Windows Everywhere ad:


And this is Google’s Android Everywhere vision, as shown off at the recent Google I/O conference:


Look familiar?

If you’re a developer or device maker with a stake in mobile technology, and specifically the next billion devices, this isn’t just a friendly wager. Do you bet on the older, experienced competitor? Or do you put your money on the young, aggressive rival?

The numbers are clearly in Google’s favor. Earlier this year, Gartner forecast that more than 1 billion Android devices will be sold in 2014, roughly three times as many as the total number of devices running Windows (360 million) or iOS/OS X (a combined total of 344 million).

But maybe Google is aiming at the wrong target.

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Microsoft quietly dropped the Windows Everywhere mantra last year and, under the leadership of new CEO Satya Nadella, has been pursuing a “mobile first, cloud first” strategy that focuses on getting its services onto as many platforms as possible, including Android.

The most recent evidence is a one-two punch: First was a report from ZDNet’s own Mary Jo Foley that Microsoft will deliver Office for Android ahead of its touch-first version of Office for Windows. That was followed in close order by the news that Microsoft will ship a second Nokia-branded, Android-powered phone, the X2.

That’s certainly not what Microsoft would have done in its youth. But 39-year-old Microsoft doesn't behave with the same reckless abandon as when it was a teenager. The cutthroat Microsoft of the mid-1990s, the one that perfected the "Embrace, extend, and extinguish" template, has been supplanted by a more mature competitor. (A few billions of dollars and Euros in antitrust fines, along with a decade living under a consent decree, also helped with the transformation.)

The Office team in particular has learned how to enthusiastically embrace alternative platforms. The goal for Office is to become aggressively ecumenical, running on as many platforms as possible. Office on the Mac, for example, is a significant business. The new Office apps on iPad are excellent and appear to have sold a fair number of $99-per-year Office 365 subscriptions.

If Microsoft's goal is to make it possible for you to run Office on as many devices as possible, then building a first-class Android app is mandatory, even if the unintended side-effect is strengthening Google’s hardware position temporarily.

That certainly means delivering Office for Android through the Google Play store, using the same subscriber-only model Microsoft used for its iPad apps. Whether Google will embrace Office as enthusiastically as Apple did is an open question, but it’s a safe bet that Office for Android will be insanely popular.

But the real game is in the Android Open Source Project, the Android code that Google gives away. An army of small Chinese manufacturers are building handsets based on AOSP. As of the end of last year, BI Intelligence reported that 25 percent of all global smartphone shipments were running a forked version of Android, minus Google services.

Amazon’s Kindle Fire is based on AOSP and is similarly Google-free. AOSP is also at the core of those Nokia-branded, Android-powered phones now being sold by Microsoft.

And that’s where things start to get interesting.

If Office becomes the anchor for Microsoft's Android app store, a non-Google version of Android becomes much more attractive for device makers and an easy hedge for developers, who can port their apps to MS-Android with only trivial effort.

Handset makers who are currently shipping Google-certified Android devices could choose to replace that OS with MS-Android instead. For device makers that have signed a patent licensing agreement with Microsoft, the carrot could be a complete waiver of those per-unit licensing fees as long as Office and other core Microsoft services replace their Google counterparts on each device shipped.

I made the argument earlier this year but it bears repeating here: Android isn't the enemy, Google is.

If you think Microsoft cares most about the royalty it charges a device maker for the OS license, you’re several years behind. Of course the company would be happy to collect that one-time OS royalty from a device maker, but they’re equally eager, if not more so, to have the buyer of that device paying for international Skype calls, for an Office 365 subscription, and maybe even for an Xbox Live Gold account. Over the life of a phone, the revenue from those services can easily be an order of magnitude greater than that OS royalty.

Microsoft wants its services, along with those of its partner and soon-to-be-subsidiary Nokia, to be front and center on a mobile device. It’s easy to do that with Windows Phone and Windows 8.1 mobile devices, where Microsoft controls the platform. It’s much more difficult to replace Google services on new Google-certified Android phones, where those services are set as defaults, as a condition of acceptance into the Google Play ecosystem.

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No, this doesn’t mean Microsoft is going to abandon Windows on mobile devices. When the touch-first version of Office for Windows ships, I expect it to be significantly more powerful and feature-packed than its iOS or Android cousins. That’s the advantage you get when you own the whole operating system and can tap into that OS at a low level in a way that ordinary, sandboxed apps can’t.

That also explains why Office for iOS and, soon, Android are coming ahead of the Windows version.

Meanwhile, Google’s strategy with its services is to build them for Android first, and for iOS because it can’t afford to ignore the 800-pound Apple gorilla. But it has so far steadfastly ignored Windows 8.x, forcing Windows users to use its services through the Chrome browser or not at all.

That’s exactly what Microsoft would have done under Bill Gates’ leadership in the company’s early years. But Microsoft is counting on old age and treachery to overcome Google’s youth and skill.

Topics: Mobility, Google, Microsoft

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  • A good insight

    Android is just an operating system. It doesn't have feelings, it just operates devices. No reason those can't be Microsoft-friendly devices.

    Google on the other hand, does have feelings, and they aren't philo-microsoft feelings. It deserves a different strategy.
    • Reruns

      Watch for a rerun of the Gmail/Outlook war. I will bet in future updates of Android that Google will try and do things to make Microsoft apps incompatible. This however will play out much, much more slowly since operating system upgrades do not occur as often. I wonder who will win this one? It is much more dangerous. If they break a lot of other peoples apps in the process then there will be a big backlash.

      Who said operating system do not have feelings? They can be programmed in.
      • Compatibility

        If one looks back to the beginning of the browser wars, it is Microsoft, more than any other company, that has ignored W3C standards, with the result that many sites built with Microsoft tools won't run properly on browsers other than MSIE. This isn't as common as it used to be, but I still encounter sites where this happens. And MSIE remains bogged in last place for standards compliance. See:
        • What does that have to do

          What does that have to do with Microsoft Android offering not being compatible with future releases of Android? We are not talking about web standards here. While don't think Google would go this route they have been moving more API's behind the Play store firewall
          • There is little MS has to offer on Android

            That is worth taking it up beyond Android.

            If MS would have been smart to push Visual Studio 2 years ago to create Android apps, it would have gotten ahead of Google.

            At this stage with Android Studio and other efforts done by Google, VS is a non issue, nor it has the leverage.

            Most of those that I support have simply moved away from MS products on Android. There is no reason to use them. MS barely supports them, and always is behind the curve.
          • Developer tools have no bearing...

            ...on this conversation unless you are a developer.

            If you are a user of Office Mobile (It is out already - have it on my Droid Maxx) or Lync 2013 (have that too) or MS Remote desktop for android (use that on my Transformer Prime) then you either like and use the app....or you don't like it and don't use it. But you don't really care a wit about what developer tool was used to create it.

            By the way, there is no such thing as Visual Studio 2 and never was...just so you know.
        • Absolute bolderdash!!!

          (1) You seem to think that W3C standards in the 1990's came out of thin air, and companies like Microsoft and Netscape had only the choice to obey or disobey them. Total rubbish. Both companies were rapidly innovating, driving the standards process, and W3C standards were in the back seat, trying to keep up.
          (2) The much-reviled (nowadays) IE6 version of IE was the most innovative and standards-compliant browser at the time it was introduced. That was why it took off so spectacularly.
          (3) Microsoft was however under extreme legal pressure at the time (anti-trust) over browsers. In the end, that meant that it concluded that further browser development was going to mean only grief for the company. So, it actually dismantled the team developing IE.
          (4) As a result of this halt to the development of IE, the impetus to the development of Internet technologies shifted to other companies.
          (5) However, the ongoing popularity of IE6 meant that many companies based their web sites and internal software development on it.
          (6) Without any Microsoft leadership in browsers (out of its fear of anti-trust legal action), such companies stuck with IE6, which led to their web sites being only accessible with IE6.

          Oh, and by the way, let me insert the obligatory comment about html5test. It is in no way, none, whatsoever, not at all, a test of standards compliance with html5!
          Ian Easson
          • Utter...

            ..complete BOLLOCKS!

            If that is your apologists excuse for microsofts monopoly then you are a weak man
          • Such lies you tell.

            1. where do you think HTML came from?
            2. IE 6 was never standards compliant. It was the worst ever foisted off, and and the most insecure.
            3. The lawsuit had nothing to do with functionality - just the illegal activity MS was carrying out.
            4. The halt was because MS had no competition anymore having killed Spyglass and Netscape by either unethical methods (Spyglass) or illegal (Netscape).
            5. The ongoing use was due to MS tools only creating IE compatible code. Not popularity - it was due to the illegal activity.
            6. companies were stuck with IE 6 - not that they wanted to, they were trapped. And it took time for Mozilla to get its code together.

            The HTML5 test is an indication of how well your browser supports the upcoming HTML5 standard and related specifications.
        • Any changes MS makes to cause incompatibility

          will have to have the source code released.

          If the "incompatibility" is only with their own apps, it is a don't care - other than they would be hurting their own customers.
      • History says it is MS

        I am old enough to remember the mantra of DOS isn't done till Lotus won't run.
        Harlon Katz
        • Recieving End

          The point is that Google could use this strategy against Microsoft. How will Microsoft fair on the receiving end? A result is that we as the user loose when this happens.
          • No - any change Google makes to GPL code

            that makes the base Android "incompatible" has to be released...

            And any incompatibility created in their own apps would only hurt their own customers....
          • Get Real

            Do you honestly think that will stop Google from battling Microsoft any way it can?

            As I had said previously only the user looses.
          • Getting free of MS will help the user...

            And other vendors will be able to compete fairly.

            Up to now, MS hasn't.
          • What is Fair?

            I think by fair you mean that whoever technically has the best product wins. This ignores marketing, installed base, user habits and anything that is not based only on the quality of the product.

            For doing may types of 2D drawings Microsoft's Visio is technically superior to AutoCAD. I have over 25 years of experience with both I am basing this on. Still, AutoCAD has a huge base of drawings that have been done on it. It also has a huge installed base of people that know how to use it. So, if I am going to do a new drawing what is the best product to use? One that is technically superior. One that most people can access it and modify it.

            Companies compete in the real world. They all have to obey gravity and a lot of other natural forces. The only thing that would be unfair is if they can use magic that transcends reality.
          • OR lots of money.

            Unfortunately, bribes do work. So does snowing customers, lying, and such.
        • Then you are sufferingh from dementia...

          because the phrase was not DOS, but Windows.

          "Windows isn't done until Lotus won't run."
          Ian Easson
          • Nope - it was DOS 2.

      • Microsoft Strategy

        First of all Microsoft has had the history of making things incompatible. You just have to look back at IE and the browser wars, or Microsoft Java, or even Silverlight (Cross platform my a$$). Considering Android is Open source. Even Microsoft who bought Nokia devices division is releasing another Android device Nokia X2. Why is Microsoft making devices with Google's Android OS considering it has WP, Windows RT, Windows 8.1. If a number of Microsoft zealots would actually look at Android, then you would actually see how flexible and versatile Google's Android OS really is. Just look at Android wear for example. All other smart watch platforms require you to make separate apps for the watches. Now along comes Android wear and its the first platform to allow its developers to take their existing apps and just add in some Android wear code. So now the same Android phone or tablet app will now run and support Android wear watches. Or course stand alone apps are still supported, but this is just brilliant. No wonder why Android has been growing leaps and bounds.
        If you build it, they will come.