As Microsoft continues to evolve Windows Phone in hopes of greater market share, its latest trick could be to support Android apps on its handsets. That’s the latest rumor, according to Eldar Murtzin, a long-time industry insider who has a few correct predictions to his name. Murtzin tweeted the information on Tuesday morning, sounding pretty certain:
About Microsoft/Lumia Android smartphone rumours. MS adopted VM for execution of Android apps on WP. All Lumia devices will support it—
Eldar Murtazin (@eldarmurtazin) July 08, 2014
From a technical standpoint, this is certainly feasible, at least at a high level. Android apps run inside what’s called a virtual machine (VM), or a software implementation of a computer. Currently, that VM is called Dalvik, but with Android L — the next, upcoming version of Android — apps will run in the ART VM. BlackBerry took this approach back in 2011 when it announced Android app support for its Playbook tablet.
Microsoft is no stranger to Android, either, thanks in part to completing its purchase of Nokia’s phone division earlier this year. Nokia developed the Nokia X phone, which has a flat, tiled interface similar to Windows Phone, but the handset runs on the freely available Android Open Source Project (AOSP) software. As a result, there are no Google services on the Nokia X — Microsoft would need to license those from Google.
Interestingly, Microsoft earns an estimated $2 billion per year from the sale of Android phones. Why? Android handsets use a few technologies that Microsoft owns the patents for — the exFAT file system used to store data, for example, is one of roughly 310 Microsoft patented features found in Android implementations.
I have to wonder: How much of that estimated $2 billion would Microsoft “trade” in potential Windows Phone market share gains? Could Microsoft work a deal with Google and its hardware partners to reduce the patent payments in order to license Google services, and more specifically, access to the Google Play Store for apps to make app discovery and installation easier? That’s a stretch because when you license Google services for Android, you have to use the whole range of services, i.e.: Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Maps, and so on. Microsoft surely wouldn’t want to do that.
But if the two companies could come to a specific agreement for Google Play Store access only on Windows Phones, I’m sure Microsoft would be pretty happy — assuming it wants to allow Android apps on its phones in the first place, of course. Microsoft doesn’t need to do this to bring Android apps to Windows Phone, however: As BlackBerry has proven, it can be done without Play Store access.
Right now Microsoft is in an unfortunate situation as it has done perhaps all it can to build up Windows Phone. It has a stellar hardware division now in Nokia, and the latest Windows Phones are great devices from a hardware perspective. Windows Phone 8.1 is much improved over prior versions — on par with Android and iOS in many ways, and ahead in a few others. At this point, it’s up to developers and their apps to help propel Windows Phone, something that’s partially out of Microsoft’s hands.
I’m not suggesting that Android app support on Windows Phone will suddenly boost Microsoft’s mobile market share. But it wouldn’t hurt. Yes, there would be some app incompatibility issues — Android apps might not have access to all Windows Phone’s hardware components, for example. However, the situation could help push some people over the edge who would otherwise have to stay on Android or iOS because [insert app name here] isn’t available yet for Windows Phone.
Although I use Windows Phone 8.1 on a Lumia 520 (yes, I know: I need to upgrade my phone), I can’t use it on a full-time basis for long because I’m in the camp I described above. Most of the apps I use on other platforms are available on Windows Phone. But there are a few that I need for work purposes that are Android and iOS only. I’ve tried to use the browser to compensate for these but it’s not optimal, particularly since I rely on notifications from some of these apps, something IE isn’t going to give me.
Android on Windows Phone? It sounds crazy, but it’s possible. I’m not sure Microsoft would want to go down that path, however, unless it can make sure it benefits more than Google does.