Microsoft's mobile hardware mess: Android isn't the answer

Microsoft's phone business is in disarray, and a couple of my colleagues think the answer is for Redmond to go full Android. My response: Where's the business justification?
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Last week, two of my colleagues made the case for Microsoft ditching its sputtering Windows Mobile efforts and going full Android.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes argued that it's time for Microsoft to give up on Windows Phone and switch to Android . Although the argument seemed reasonable enough, when "this isn't as crazy as it sounds" is the opening salvo of your pitch, you might have an uphill climb ahead.

And then James Kendrick piled on with a specific recommendation: Microsoft should buy Jide Remix . For the 99.7 percent of readers who have no idea what Jide Remix is, allow me to explain: It's a quixotic project from some former Google engineers who dream of turning Android into a clone of the Microsoft Surface.

In a Mashable review last year, Lance Ulanoff called the Jide Remix tablet "an embarrassing Microsoft Surface rip-off." Ulanoff (a former PC Magazine editor-in-chief) was sufficiently unimpressed by the hardware to toss "execrable" and "mess" into the mix as well.

But forget those specifics.

Both arguments are based on a consumer's-eye view of Microsoft's mobile hardware. But when I read both columns my first thought was, "How would a Microsoft CEO react to this suggestion?

I am pretty certain Bill Gates would have said, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard." (In fairness, he said that about some pretty good ideas in his CEO days, but usually changed his mind after the presenter stood his ground.)

Steve Ballmer would have thrown a chair. In fact, given that Ballmer convinced the Microsoft board to pull the trigger on the ill-fated Nokia acquisition, I'm thinking he would probably throw at least five chairs, just on general principle.

But I imagine that current CEO Satya Nadella would simply lean back, fold his hands together, and ask, pointedly, "How does this help our business?"

And that's where the Android-on-Microsoft equation breaks down, as far as I am concerned.

There is no doubt that Microsoft's foray into phone hardware has been a flop. I've lost count of the number of reboots in mobile strategy from Redmond over the past eight years. And when the company took a $7.6 billion (that's billion-with-a-b) writedown of the Nokia acquisition last year, it made its goal pretty clear: Microsoft will "in the near term ... run a more effective and focused phone portfolio," said CEO Satya Nadella in an e-mail to employees .

That's code for "a much smaller operation than before," for those who aren't fluent in corporate-speak.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has been actively and successfully pitching itself as the Switzerland of mobile software providers, with an enormous portfolio of apps and services that connect to iOS and Android devices. When I looked at Microsoft's Android apps for business last month, I was tremendously impressed.

Microsoft's apps run on all modern Android devices, including those from Samsung, HTC, and LG, and, yes, even on Google's own Nexus devices. So if Microsoft were to ditch its Windows 10 mobile hardware and switch to Android, what would it gain? Absolutely nothing, except resentment from its OEM partners and more headaches trying to maintain an operating system whose fate is governed by an archrival that has been known to play dirty. If I were a product manager, I am not sure you could pay me enough to take that job.

As for Jide Remix, yes, it's a clever hack that makes Android vaguely more PC-like, in a way that Google doesn't seem willing or able to do. But Microsoft's apps and services already run as first-class citizens on devices that are licensed to run Jide Remix. If Microsoft bought the company, how would the acquisition benefit its business? They would need to sell hundreds of millions of devices to make the investment worthwhile. Even the most bullish analyst would be hard-pressed to make the case for that happening here on Planet Earth.

Besides, there's already an impressive team working on an alternative version of Android. Microsoft invested in Cyanogen almost exactly a year ago, promising "native integrations" of its apps and services for the Cyanogen OS. It doesn't hurt that Cyanogen has a major presence in the Seattle area. And it's in everyone's best interest for the two companies to remain friendly but independent.

Microsoft's approach to the Android juggernaut in 2016 seems imperfect but fully defensible. They've managed to get more than a hundred apps in the Google Play Store, with several of them accounting for tens of millions of downloads. It's reminiscent of Microsoft's early embrace of the Mac. If you're too young to remember, allow me to remind you that Microsoft released Excel for the Mac before it released a Windows version. Office seems to have survived.

In the past, I've made a hypothetical case for Microsoft building its own, forked version of Android, with links to Microsoft services taking over their Google counterparts. (See "Microsoft's relationship with Android: 'It's complicated'" and "Microsoft's relationship with Android just got less complicated." )

In 2016, in Satya Nadella's Microsoft, that strategy really seems misguided. The new Microsoft is all about platform agnosticism, and that "cloud first, mobile first" strategy has everything to do with being a good citizen on every platform and almost nothing to do with cage matches with other OS developers.

Given the common core in its mobile and desktop and server Windows 10 products, there's still a solid business case for Microsoft making mobile hardware that runs its Universal Windows Platform apps. Those still have a fighting chance of finding their way into corporate deployments, and they fit into the so-far-successful strategy of building devices that are showcases for Microsoft's software rather than full-on plays for market share.

But becoming just another Android OEM? I think that move might inspire even the normally mild-mannered Satya Nadella to throw a chair or two.

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