Meet the new Microsoft Phone, powered by Android (No Windows required)
Over the past few years, Microsoft has embraced the Android operating system with surprising enthusiasm. With a large collection of apps for business available in the Google Play Store, you now have everything you need to turn an Android device into a Microsoft phone.
This story was originally published in March 2016. It has been extensively updated multiple times to reflect changes in Microsoft's lineup of Android apps. This revision was published October 23, 2018.
Microsoft's huge investment in software for the Android operating system shouldn't be surprising, especially in the Satya Nadella era. And yet it's still a bit of a shock to search for "Microsoft Corporation" in the Google Play Store and see just how extensive its lineup of Android apps is.
You certainly couldn't say that three years ago. When I surveyed the Microsoft app landscape in early 2015, I found some serious gaps on the Android front. The only option for working with Office files was the weak Office Mobile app, for example, and Outlook was still known by the name of its third-party predecessor, Acompli.
Within a year, that had changed dramatically, as Microsoft bulked up its collection to more than 80 apps. Today, the core Office apps -- Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneDrive -- are all certified Android hits with more than 500 million downloads each. Outlook and OneNote have notched well over 100 million downloads apiece. These are serious productivity apps, and they are generally rated highly in the Google Play Store.
That focus on Office 365 was the driving force behind Microsoft's rise as an Android power. Today, the company appears to be entering a new phase.
With a few exceptions (Music and Maps are the most noteworthy), Microsoft now has a replacement app for nearly every built-in Google app on the Android platform. That's enough to effectively create a Microsoft phone, no Windows required. The Microsoft Launcher serves as the home screen, app manager, and gateway to Microsoft services, with the relatively new Your Phone Companion app tying phone activity into the Windows 10 Timeline on linked PCs.
Perhaps that cornucopia of apps explains why some well-known names normally associated with Microsoft, including Joe Belfiore and Bill Gates, have publicly declared that they're enthusiastically using the platform.
As my colleague Jason Perlow points out, recent antitrust developments make it possible, in theory at least, for Microsoft and Amazon to effectively create an alternative to the stock Android experience and dislodge Google from its hegemony over the Android platform. (Microsoft also has a robust selection of apps on iOS devices, but the locked-down nature of the platform makes this sort of takeover impossible.)
But you don't have to wait for that unicorn phone to arrive. You can create a Microsoft-centric experience on Android devices now with remarkably little work.
For this post, I've assembled direct links to all of Microsoft's business-class apps for Android. I've left out some consumer-focused stalwarts, including the Microsoft Solitaire Collection and the Xbox app (an indispensable after-hours tool that has been downloaded more than 10 million times).
All the apps I include here are free, although several of the Office 365 apps require a subscription to unlock some premium features.
If your work life revolves around Office 365, OneDrive, and other Microsoft services, follow these links to turn your Android device into a Microsoft phone.
Microsoft Launcher started out as an app from the Microsoft Garage, the official outlet for experimental projects. It has since become a strategic project for the company, important enough that it gets a featured listing when you search for apps from Microsoft Corporation.
As a replacement for the default launcher on an Android device, it includes all the features you would expect, including multiple home screens, widgets, and a plethora of customization options. I've been using the beta release (version 5.x) of this app, and the improvements over version 4.x are striking. Swipe left, for example, and you'll find that the customizable Your Feed page now offers three tabs, including a Timeline tab that allows you to quickly return to any document or web page you've opened on any linked device.
As the name suggests, this app is designed to link an Android phone to a PC running Windows 10, where you can send and receive text messages and get direct access to your most recent photos. (For more on the Windows 10 Your Phone app and other features in Windows 10 version 1809, see "Windows 10 October 2018 Update: The new features that matter most.")
The companion app at this point feels a bit raw and unfinished, especially if you find yourself needing to connect multiple devices. Once configured, though, it works as advertised.
Ironically, the iOS and Android apps beat their Windows counterparts to the punch with a key feature. You can connect the OneDrive apps to personal and business accounts, then switch between those files as easily as you would switch between accounts in an email app.
When this app debuted it was downright crude. Today, on a large enough mobile display, it's extremely capable and easy to navigate. You can browse files, photos, and SharePoint sites and view details about a file or folder with a tap. An easily accessible toolbar button lets you quickly mark a file or folder to be always available offline.
The photo sharing features of OneDrive make it easy to share screenshots from a phone to a PC with only a few taps, a feature I took advantage of in creating this article. For Office 365 subscribers, the ability to review and edit shared files will probably be the most crucial.
Three short years ago, getting any serious work done with Office documents on an Android smartphone was difficult, because only the weak Office Mobile app was available. Today, there are full-strength Office apps, available for the platform, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and OneNote. (Skype for Business is also available for business subscribers, as is the more recent Microsoft Teams.)
You probably wouldn't want to create a doctoral dissertation in one of these apps, but for reading and light editing they're extremely effective. And just as with the desktop Office apps on Windows and OS X, the consistent interface makes it easy to switch between apps while remaining productive.
10 must-have Microsoft apps for your Android phone
Outlook ranks as the most improved member of the Office app family. It connects to Office 365 Exchange Online accounts, free Outlook.com accounts, and Gmail accounts; the navigation bar at the bottom of the app makes it easy to switch between email, calendar, and contact tabs.
The swipe actions are customizable, and the Focused Inbox feature is uncannily accurate at sorting important mail from stuff I don't really care about. My only complaint is that there's no fine-grained control over sync intervals.
The most disappointing member of the app family is Microsoft To-Do, which offers acceptable functionality but hasn't yet fulfilled its promise to incorporate the functionality of Wunderlist, which Microsoft bought three years ago.
Enterprise Office 365 subscribers will want to look carefully at Microsoft Teams and Microsoft StaffHub, both of which are useful additions but still evolving.
But the real sleeper of Office on a smartphone is the Office Lens app, which lets you treat your smartphone camera as if it were a scanner. It's optimized to capture content from whiteboards, printed documents, business cards, and ordinary photos and save it in any of a half-dozen formats.
Microsoft's lineup of Android apps includes a surprising number of utilities designed to make the Android experience better.
The most prominent addition to that launcher is Cortana, which is also available as a standalone app. After three years of evolution it's become very useful indeed and is a worthy replacement if you're concerned that saying "OK Google" is turning over too much information to Google's machine. Microsoft Translator is useful enough if you need to quickly ask directions while visiting in a strange land.
And someone at Microsoft loves alternative keyboards. Microsoft has a special keyboard for use with Excel, and another called the Hub keyboard, which adds an Office 365 search bar to the top of the input panel. But the big kahuna is SwiftKey, acquired two years ago and recently updated to include a host of useful features. As far as I am concerned, this is the premier alternative keyboard for both Android and iOS.
If you're a sysadmin running Microsoft Intune or supporting Dynamics CRM, you'll find a half-dozen Android apps for each of those products. There's also a serviceable Office 365 Admin tool that could stand some beefing up.
One app that has a place of honor on my home screen is Microsoft Authenticator, which supports two-factor authentication for Microsoft Accounts, Azure Active Directory, Office 365, and third-party apps. Even if you prefer a different 2FA app, such as Google Authenticator, this one is worth having for its one-tap approvals for Microsoft services.
At this week's Build developers conference, Microsoft shows off new features designed to connect its cloud-based services more tightly to mobile devices running iOS and Android. But will developers see an opportunity?