Now that Satya Nadella is in as the new CEO of Microsoft, there are all kinds of armchair executives shouting out their notions of where Microsoft should go from here. One of them is Charles Arthur, the technology editor of The Guardian, and he brings up some points about the Windows Phone platform that are worth thinking about.
Arthur, like a few others out there on Twitter and elsewhere, believe Microsoft would be best served by ditching their Windows Phone platform altogether and moving on to the Android Open Source Platform (AOSP), a malleable version of Android in use by several Chinese manufacturers. The main difference is that AOSP phones under the Microsoft aegis would come stocked with Microsoft services, rather than Google services.
Why the switch? Well, to put it bluntly, Windows Phone is going nowhere as a platform. It’s beloved in some circles, but it has a low and stagnant user base that has showed no signs of catching up to Google or Apple’s offerings. Windows Phone, as it exists now, is caught in a vicious cycle – too few developers make apps for Windows Phone devices because too few people buy those devices, and too few people buy those devices because too few apps are being made for the platform.
That said, I don’t follow Arthur’s reasoning for why Microsoft should jump to AOSP. He mentions that Microsoft could work with its new Nokia division and with smaller Chinese companies to start making a comeback, and that Microsoft has simply gotten into the game too late with Windows Phone and can’t catch up. But, I’m not sure that switching to AOSP is the answer. While it would solve the problem of the lack of apps available, Microsoft would ultimately be left with an unremarkable product – an Android phone with Microsoft services. That’s going to have to enter into direct competition with Android phones running Google services. Google, needless to say, has quite a home field advantage. I don’t see where the impetus for conversion comes in. For Microsoft to get back into the smartphone race, they need to provide some sort of compelling reason for Android and iOS users to switch, and I don’t see what it is. Surely it’s not that Microsoft’s mobile services are superior to Google’s – they aren’t (nor are they near as popular). Besides, if Android users really wanted to use Microsoft services on their current, Google Android phones, well, there are (a lot of) apps for that.
Windows Phone is a problem that needs to be solved by Nadella and the team around him, there’s no doubt about that. But, by moving to Android, even a forked version of Android, Microsoft would lose what defines Windows Phone as a product. Ostensibly, they would use the Nokia acquisition to crank out those AOSP phones, but why? Samsung has cornered the market on Android, and not that many people are frothing at the mouth about Microsoft’s mobile services. Despite its continued failure to catch up to its competitors (and the less-than-reassuring fall of BlackBerry), Microsoft probably needs to double down on Windows Phone as a platform if they want to stay in the smartphone game and find some new and creative ways to bait developers into making the effort. It’s already proven to be hard enough to beat Google with a distinctive product – beating Google at, literally, their own game seems very unlikely.