Microsoft

Microsoft's Android moment has arrived

Despite years trying to make Windows work, Microsoft needs to call it quits and embrace Android's momentum.

Android

There's no polite way to say it: Microsoft's mobile strategy is a complete failure. As good as Microsoft is looking in cloud computing, mobile remains a black hole in Redmond. But it needn't remain that way.

However, to succeed, Microsoft may need to open up to its fiercest competitor and cash cow: Android.

So many ways to fail

There are many reasons Microsoft has failed with mobile. First, it tried to force the Windows desktop experience onto mobile devices, not recognizing that the market actually wanted a completely new approach to computing.

Next, it hoped to go for a truly mobile experience but continue to sell it the same old way it always had sold Windows: per-device licensing fee. The approach was ridiculously wrongheaded in a world that no longer paid for an OS (Apple sold complete hardware/software bundles and Google gave Android away to make money from advertising).

Of late, Microsoft's mobile strategy has been even more moribund, if that's possible. First, it rattled its patent saber to scare up fees from gullible Android distributors. Second, it bought Nokia's handset business. While the former strategy has lined its pockets, neither strategy has made Microsoft a serious mobile player.

Which is why Microsoft needs to think seriously about Android, and not as a way to gouge OEMs for patent royalties.

Yes, that Android

Google, after all, now runs commercials about how much it loves a big-tent community for Android, as Jack Wallen captures:

"Be together, not the same.

"We all know what that slogan hints at. I need not spell it out. Beyond the jab at Apple, the commercial brings to light that everyone can use Android — not just nerds, geeks, and elites... everyone."

Could "everyone" include Microsoft? Why not?

Microsoft, after all, already has ported critical services to run on Android. Its employees also spend a fair amount of time tinkering in the Microsoft Garage on revamping the Android experience. This is a new Microsoft, one that's open to open source and is equally open to trying to find new ways to go to market.

But is Microsoft cozying up to Android completely crazy?

The Financial Times' Kate Bevan doesn't think so. In fact, she notes that Microsoft needn't walk alone with an Android fork:

"Here's a blue-sky suggestion for Mr Nadella: sit down with Jeff Bezos at Amazon to develop a good fork of Android. Microsoft has a compelling services offering but an almost non-existent platform for these services, despite the quality of the Lumia handsets. Amazon has compelling content with its Prime video but seems unable to get consumers to buy its Fire devices. For smaller providers, a Microsoft-Amazon-style joint venture would be a great way to become part of an ecosystem out of Google's reach."

Easy? Of course not. Microsoft and Amazon are locked in mortal combat in the cloud, and AWS threatens to up-end Microsoft's entire enterprise software business.

But mobile is different and requires Microsoft to, well, think different.

The battle for the next billion

Some argue that Windows Phone is already positioned for emerging markets that Apple can't claim. Rubbish. Android has already won that war for emerging markets, whether Google-sponsored Android, as in Latin America, or forked Android, as in China.

If Microsoft wants to compete in such markets, or in established markets, it needs to piggyback on Android's momentum.

Others decry the Microsoft-plus-Android strategy, arguing — as Dan Rowinski does — that "For Microsoft, to build on Android is to start from zero. Zero marketshare, zero apps. Zilch. Nada. Nothing."

But this is clearly not true. Microsoft has already started building on Android. While it's true that it has anemic market share on Android, the same is true of Windows. The difference is that Android has a bright future. Windows Mobile? Not so much.

In short, Microsoft may not have a real choice here. Sure, it can choose to remain irrelevant in mobile. But that's not the choice that Xiaomi and other big Android users have chosen. Instead, they've forked Android and have built thriving ecosystems on it. Microsoft should consider doing the same.

Do you agree? Why or why not? Share your opinion in the discussion thread below.

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About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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