How Amazon and Microsoft could build the world’s biggest app store

Move over, Google and Apple. Consumers want and deserve another option that is free from your undue influence.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Last week, in China, Huawei launched the Mate 30 Pro. This high-end smartphone has earned the highest DXOMark rating for photographic quality and camera hardware ever recorded on a mobile device, achieving 121 points on the independent benchmark review website's scale. The recently released iPhone 11 Pro has not yet been rated by the firm but is expected to have similar levels of performance ranking.

For Android fans, the Huawei Mate 30 Pro is without question the most powerful and most advanced smartphone on the market, hardware-wise. There's just one problem -- it doesn't come loaded with Google Play Services

That means it doesn't have the Google Play Store, which includes access to critical applications such as Gmail, Google Maps, and YouTube, as well as access to hundreds of thousands of other popular apps that can only be loaded from that store. For the Chinese market, that isn't a critical deficiency, as the "Great Firewall" effectively blocks access to Google and its services. The domestic market in China has other popular apps and services that Chinese citizens use instead. 

For a device trying to break into the export market, however, including Europe and North America, it's practically a death sentence for sales if Google Play isn't pre-installed. 

In the case of Huawei, the company is constrained by its inclusion on a government list of entities that Americans cannot do business with. But the result is that even a consumer who buys a device like the Mate 30 Pro cannot replace Google Play with something else because Google lacks competition.

That Google is able to effectively control the market on mobile applications with their respective app stores and bundled services is of significant concern. Governments such as the United States and India are currently investigating whether or not this dominance by Google violates the antitrust laws of their respective nations. The EU has already fined Google billions and potentially, more are on the way.

Apple's App Store also deserves further scrutiny. Even though Apple has full proprietary control over its hardware and its ecosystem, through its walled garden, it restricts access to that system by being able to shut out competitors to its services if it so desires. Apple has done this in the past with companies like Samsung and Google, who compete with them in electronic payment services like Samsung Pay and Google Pay. It also prevents 3rd-party browser engines, such as Google's Chromium, from being installed on their mobile OS.

I am of the increasing opinion that no device manufacturer should be forced to license an App Store, nor should an App Store be preloaded onto a device in the first place unless the originating OEM makes that decision. So, for example, Google and Apple can preload their respective App Stores on their own devices, Google's Pixel, Apple's iPhone. Samsung can and should preload its Galaxy Store on its phones.

However, I don't think any 3rd-party Android OEM should be loading Google Play services out of the box or strong-armed into licensing it. It should be the consumer's choice to install it.

Not all of us want all of Google's tendrils in everything, by default. However, realistically, we don't have that choice in the United States. If you buy an Android device, it's going to come with Google's stuff, and the phone isn't usable without it. It is the core apps, such as Gmail, Google Maps, an integrated dialer, and contacts management, all tied into Google's cloud services, that make the devices valuable.

Apple's iOS is proprietary and runs only on the iPhone. While they cannot be forced to license it, and can and do restrict which apps are allowed to be listed on their store, I believe that the company should be prohibited from restricting 3rd-party stores on their mobile devices. Currently, the only way a 3rd-party app store can be loaded on an iPhone is through jailbreaking and installing Cydia.

The Android platform currently does not have any restrictions on sideloading stores. There are a few that can be added today, for particular purposes such as adult applications, like the MiKandi store. Amazon also has its AppStore, which is primarily used on its Fire OS tablets. It can also be sideloaded onto any Android device, such as the Huawei Mate 30 Pro.

Amazon's AppStore 

However, these 3rd-party stores have not been popular because the consumer cloud services backing them aren't compelling enough. To have a thriving independent store that any consumer can load on their device free from the interference from device vendors (or political administrations) you would need some influential companies with robust services at the helm running it.

Amazon's AppStore isn't bad. The UX could undoubtedly be improved, but the biggest issue is the lack of apps and integrated services in their ecosystem. Google will not participate by listing its apps since it's a competing platform. Conversely, software application developers do not currently view it as a high monetization opportunity due to Google's monopolistic dominance in the Android space.

If Amazon were to partner with the most powerful software developer in the world, the one that truly understands developer relationships from over 40 years of experience in the personal computing space, that might change. However, it would require something of a leap of faith and a level of understanding and compromise between two fierce competitors that have never been seen in the industry.

That potential partner is Microsoft. In the last five and a half years, since Satya Nadella took the reins as CEO, Microsoft has transformed itself into a device-independent software developer and cloud services giant, producing dozens of apps and compelling services for both Android and iOS. 

The entire suite of Microsoft apps and cloud services provide an excellent foundation for mobile devices, for consumers and businesses alike. The problem is that Microsoft is subject to the whims of both Google and Apple for listing in their respective app stores. They also give up a cut of their sales when the premium versions of these services are activated in those stores.

Amazon has a similar problem when promoting its apps and services on Google Play and Apple's App Store. As I am sure many have noticed, you cannot buy premium content in the Amazon apps themselves. It must be bought out of band, directly on Amazon's web site or in one of their device UXes such as on an actual Kindle, Fire OS device, or Fire TV. Amazon doesn't want to have to kick back money to Google and Apple for that. 

In addition to an extensive portfolio of apps, Microsoft brings strong authentication, in the form of Azure Active Directory, to a potential app store. That authentication can then tie into services for identity management, which anyone participating as a customer would require for purchasing apps and using services such as email, or maps. Microsoft also has Intune, its mobile device management platform, which could be used by account holders on this store platform to manage application installs and other settings, such as on family-managed or business-managed devices.

Amazon has consumer cloud services that Microsoft does not, such as music streaming, and lots of video content that it provides through Prime and as paid rentals. Amazon also has Alexa and the entire skill and device ecosystem that surrounds it.

Other Partnerships

Arguably, even when you combine the portfolios of both companies, there still may be some gaps that will need to be addressed, such as with a map and navigation application for Android. However, those could be resolved with other partner relationships, such as with Uber, or Garmin. Moreover, Amazon is already spending a lot on mapping services for its internal use; those might be eligible to form the basis of a consumer mapping service as well. Microsoft also has a Maps application that could be ported from Windows and the web. It also has existing partnerships with Here Technologies that it should be able to leverage for building an Android maps and navigation application.

As separate companies with separate suites of applications and cloud services, they have gaps in functionality that are bested by Google and Apple. However, together, they more than match what Google and Apple have. 

Also, developers writing apps for Android -- as well as iOS apps, should the government eventually require Cupertino to permit 3rd-party stores on its platform -- will understand the benefit of aligning themselves with the two most powerful consumer and enterprise cloud vendors and software developers. Moreover, I am sure that Amazon and Microsoft could make transactional costs to 3rd-party developers much more compelling than either Google or Apple.

Amazon and Microsoft are significant competitors in the cloud space. They would have to come to certain agreements on what they would continue to compete on, who would own and operate which parts of the shared store infrastructure. They would also have to agree on who would develop what apps and services to contribute to it, and what they would choose to adopt from each other, respectively. 

All of that under consideration, it's not out of the realm of possibility. Microsoft has already agreed to integrate Alexa with Windows. A good case could be made for Amazon to implement Azure Active Directory with account federation with Amazon user IDs should the two decide to do this as a joint venture.

I have argued in the past why the two companies should join forces. Such a move may not have been as compelling a year ago, but things are changing. There is antitrust movement against Google and potentially Apple now that the Supreme Court has lifted certain legal obstructions to litigation. 

I think there is now an excellent case for an independently run App Store that any consumer can sideload onto their device -- one that has broad international reach and that is free from OEM manipulation or political interference which could hamper the consumer availability of worthy competing 3rd-party mobile devices.

Should Amazon and Microsoft put aside their differences in the cloud and join forces against Google, and ultimately Apple, with their respective App Stores? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Read more

Editorial standards