A couple of weeks ago, Samsung finally confirmed what had turned out to be the worst kept secret of 2017. It officially revealed the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8 Plus smartphones. However, the next day, there was another, much smaller announcement related to the new Galaxy phones that came completely out of left field: Microsoft announced it would begin selling the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus in its US retail stores.
Yes, Microsoft, the home of Windows, is going to sell Android smartphones in its stores for the very first time. Not only that, but Microsoft Store employees will help download many of the company’s Android apps on the new Galaxy phones right there in the store when you buy them.
This news came as a shock to many people, and started a bunch of speculation about what Microsoft was thinking and planning. Questions were asked, such as, “Is the company going to start selling more Android phones in its stores?” and “What does this mean for the future of its own Windows 10 Mobile operating system?”. Perhaps the biggest question of all from internet speculators was, “Is this just the first step towards Microsoft launching its own Android-based smartphone?”
The simple answer to that last question is a definitive, “We don’t know”. However, there are some very good reasons why Microsoft should consider breaking from tradition to design and sell its own Android smartphones. Here’s five off the top of our head.
Windows 10 Mobile is on its last breath
This reason is a pretty huge one for Microsoft. While Windows 10 seems to have a solid foothold on the PC desktop and notebook market – and is also competitive on tablets – the same cannot be said for Windows 10 Mobile on smartphones.
In the latest data from Kantar Research, from March 2017, the firm showed huge year-over-year declines for Windows 10 Mobile in the overall smartphone industry in nearly every market. The decline was biggest in Europe, where it went from claiming 6.4 percent of the market a year ago down to just 2.7 percent. In the US, the smartphone market share for the OS went down from an already low 2.6 percent to just 1.3 percent. In addition, more and more major apps have announced plans to sunset their Windows 10 Mobile versions in the past year.
Kantar was blunt in its analysis of this trend, stating that it was clear there would only be two mobile operating systems in the future; iOS and, of course Android. It added, “To succeed, phone manufacturers will have to play by those rulebooks.” Indeed, there are only a handful of smartphones companies that have announced plans to release new Windows 10 Mobile products. Microsoft’s latest Windows 10 Mobile phone, the Lumia 650, was released over a year ago, and the company has given no indications it plans to release any new devices using that OS in the near, or even far, future.
If Microsoft were to release a new smartphone again, there's almost no doubt that that would be economically unfeasible to do so running Windows 10 Mobile.
If Microsoft were to release a new smartphone again, there’s almost no doubt that it would be economically unfeasible to do so running Windows 10 Mobile. Since Apple has a hardware stranglehold on iOS, the only alternative would be to make one running Android. It’s as simple as that.
Microsoft’s “mobile first, cloud first” motto
In early 2014, just a few weeks after being named as Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella announced the company’s new “mobile first, cloud first” strategy. In short, the company would not be defined anymore by offering just Windows-based products. Instead, it would offer products and services that would work for all devices, regardless of what operating system they used. Those devices would also be able to access and use the company’s many cloud-based services like Office 365, Cortana and others.
Microsoft wants to offer products and services that work for all devices, regardless of OS.
In the past three years, we have seen that strategy expand, as Microsoft started releasing versions of its services and apps like Office, Cortana, and others for Android and iOS. Several of its apps are actually Android exclusives, such as its Arrow launcher and Next Lock Screen.
Offering an Android-based smartphone that’s loaded with apps and services from Microsoft could, in theory, be the next step in Nadella’s business plan. Windows does not appear to be in any danger of losing its hold on the PC market, but offering a Microsoft-branded smartphone on Android would give it a more direct way to offer Microsoft’s products and services to the even bigger smartphone market and its larger audience.
Microsoft’s Surface design team
When Microsoft first announced it was going to be making its own Windows-based PC hardware devices in 2012, there was a lot of skepticism that it could compete with the many established OEMs on the market, like Dell, HP, Lenovo and others. Microsoft ended up surprising everyone when it launched its first Windows RT tablet in the Surface family later that year.
While it took a year or two to refine its design, the Surface and Surface Pro tablets slowly became both a sales and critical success for Microsoft. Lead by Panos Panay, the Surface team engineered innovations such as its built-in kickstand, its optional Type Covers and its powerful hardware inside a thin and light case.
In 2015, it launched its first true notebook, the Surface Book, with its detachable display and dynamic fulcrum hinge. In 2016, the Surface team released perhaps its most innovative product yet; the Surface Studio. The all-in-one PC has a huge 28-inch touchscreen display that can be moved and angled so it can serve as a professional drawing and art canvas, complete with its own tool to help access its features, the Surface Dial.
WHat I’m getting at here is that it’s clear Panay and the Surface team have learned a ton from their initial shaky product releases. Each new product launch from that group shows new confidence in design and innovation. It also shows that the team doesn’t try to mimic what other companies are doing. Indeed, it can be honestly said that many PC OEMs are now trying to copy what the Surface team has brought to the table in their own products.
We think that the Surface team could bring all that design experience to a smaller form factor product.
We think that the Surface team could bring all that design experience to a smaller form factor product. A Surface smartphone, based on Android, would likely be a very premium product, both in terms of features and in price, based on the history of previous Surface devices. It might just target high end users or business and enterprise customers.
But whatever audience a Microsoft Android phone targeted, it would definitely have features that other smartphones companies haven’t thought of yet. If Microsoft does indeed have those kinds of plans in the works, then Google, Samsung, LG and others might have to look over their shoulder.
A new take on software and services for Android
Much like Samsung with TouchWiz and Huawei with EMUI, Microsoft could release an Android-based smartphone with its own UX and features. It helps that Google offers Android as an open source operating system so Microsoft would have lots of freedom to remake the OS as it sees fit.
In one possible scenario, Microsoft could decide to simply ditch all of Google’s standard Android apps and replace them with its own.
We also know that Microsoft is no slouch in the software area. In one possible scenario, it could decide to simply ditch all of Google’s standard Android apps and replace them with its own. The company’s Office apps and OneDrive could do away with Google Docs and Drive. It could get rid of Google Assistant in favor of Cortana. It could even make the move to adapt its Edge browser, which currently is available just for Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile, to work on Android.
Of course, doing this would mean losing the Google Play Store under Google’s (reportedly) Machiavellian ‘Mobile Application Distribution Agreement’ which essentially states if you want one Google app you have to take them all. Limiting the possible success of an Android-powered Microsoft phone in this way is therefore pretty unlikely, although it is possible.
In fact, there were signs that Microsoft was planning to implement a version of that plan at one point via a partnership with Cyanogen. In 2015, the two companies said they were working to create an integration of Microsoft’s services into a future version of the Android-based Cyanogen OS, with the ultimate goal of getting rid of all of Google’s services. However, as many of you know, Cyanogen has ended its OS development business, so those plans seems to be on indefinite hold.
We think Microsoft would be better off releasing an Android phone with all of Google’s services still in place.
However, rather than replacing all those services, we think Microsoft would be better off releasing an Android phone with all of Google’s services still in place. There’s already a precedent for this. BlackBerry decided to start offering its own Android-based smartphones, starting with the Priv, in November 2015 while also still selling smartphones with its in-house BlackBerry OS. Its Android phones kept all of Google’s apps and services, including the Google Play Store, while also offering customers some of its own software and security features.
If Microsoft were to launch an Android smartphone, we think it would be best for Microsoft to just use Google’s services, and add its own software to the mix. It would make the phone more accessible to a larger audience who can get all of the benefits and features of Android, while also getting a bunch of Microsoft exclusive features as well. While endless duplication of pre-existing Google services is no one’s idea of a great plan, it’d be the safest way forward for Microsoft.
The ultimate smartphone-desktop hybrid
One of the most promising features of Windows 10 Mobile is Continuum. It allows smartphones that can support the feature to connect to a monitor via a dock or wireless connection, so they can use Windows 10 apps made especially for Continuum as if they were on a desktop PC. In theory, this sounds great. In practice, the reviews of Continuum have been mixed. When it works, it works well, but there are lots of major Windows 10 apps that don’t work with this feature.
On the up side, Microsoft’s software team most likely got a ton of experience on what worked and what didn’t work with Continuum. If it were to launch an Android smartphone, Microsoft would be in a good position to use all of that experience to create a much better smartphone-to-desktop experience second time around.
Indeed, such a feature is already being offered by Samsung in the form of the DeX Station, a dock for the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus that is supposed to offer the same kind of features as Continuum. We believe that Microsoft could offer a similar experience if it were to launch an Android-based smartphone. In fact, we would be shocked if such a feature were not added to such a device.
Not so fast!
While there are several compelling reasons why Microsoft might want to launch an Android phone, we also have to admit there might be some good reasons for the company not to follow this route.
One of them is pretty simple: there are already a ton of Android hardware companies and smartphones out there in the marketplace. Even with all of its hardware and software experience, it would be tough for Microsoft to compete with all of them. The list of competition even includes Google now, which is getting better at making its own impressive phones like the recently launched Pixel and Pixel XL.
Microsoft's last attempt to become a smartphone hardware company turned out to be a massive disaster.
Another reason is that Microsoft already tried to become a smartphone hardware company when it acquired Nokia. That turned out to be a massive disaster, and since then Microsoft has sold off or shut down nearly all of the assets it bought from that acquisition. Understandably, it could be gun shy about entering that field once again.
Maybe the biggest reason for Microsoft not to launch its own Android phone is that it may not even need to do so. The company continues to release new Android-based apps, and it may feel it would get more out of offering its apps and services across all Android devices, rather than trying to compete with them directly via its own hardware products. Of course, Google eventually decided that particular plunge was worth taking.
What do you think?
As always, we want to hear from you on this subject. Should Microsoft shut down Windows 10 Mobile permanently? Should the company go all in and release an Android smartphone, and if so, should it replace all of Google’s services with its own or release a phone with those apps intact? Alternatively, should Microsoft not bother with releasing an Android smartphone in favor of expanding the reach of its services to all current Android devices? Let us know what you think Microsoft should do for the future of its mobile business in the comments!