Microsoft has been trying to get the world to use Windows as a mobile operating system since the days of Windows CE, way back in 1996. For 20 years, it has failed, over and over again.
The latest cratering could spell the end at last. Windows Phone shipments nose-dived in the third quarter last year, plummeting 35% year over year. By Gartner’s count, that gave Microsoft a whopping 1.7% of the smartphone market. Of course, before that, Microsoft had bought a major smartphone company, Nokia, that had been run into the ground, losing almost $10 billion on the deal.
IDC’s figures aren’t quite so bad, but still disheartening for Microsoft. It estimates that by the end of 2015, Windows Phone/Windows 10 Mobile had just 2.2% market share, while Android held 81% and Apple’s iOS 16%.
Either way, it’s clear that consumers have said no thanks to Windows on their phones. Developers? Please. Who wants to waste their time writing for a platform with no audience?
A company can only take so much humiliation.
Which is why Microsoft could finally be ready to put Windows Phone out of its misery. The market-share figures don’t tell us much, since Microsoft has endured pathetic levels of adoption for a long time. But other evidence suggests that the company is ready to go beyond supporting Android with consumer Microsoft apps and porting business apps on Android. Indeed, it’s looking as if it is preparing to fork the Android codebase and ship, either on its own or with partners, a Microsoft Android — and if it insists on trying to be a hardware company, even Microsoft Android-powered phones.
Look at what Microsoft has been doing. First, it has been de-emphasizing its platforms, even Windows on PCs, in favor of cloud-based services for some time now. It’s the cloud and servers — not Office, not Windows — that make Microsoft the most profits. Heck, Microsoft has already ported its one interesting Windows Phone-specific app, Cortana, to Android.
More recently, Microsoft bought Xamarin, a company best known for the open-source Mono language, which makes it possible to run Microsoft’s .Net Framework and C# language-based programs on Android and iOS. Forrester Research stated that this “acquisition is yet another sign of the new cross-platform, public-cloud focused Microsoft.”
That’s half-right. I think it’s a sign that Microsoft has got tired of reinforcing the Windows Phone failure and is moving its application stack to Android. You see, with Xamarin, Microsoft and its ISV developers can write Android applications using the languages and tools they already know.
Microsoft has been working with Cyanogen, an alternative Android firmware vendor, since April 2015. The goal? To “integrate and distribute Microsoft’s consumer apps and services across core categories, including productivity, messaging, utilities, and cloud-based services. … Microsoft will create native integrations on Cyanogen OS, enabling a powerful new class of experiences.”
Since then, Cyanogen CEO Kirt McMaster, has pointed out the obvious: “people are not buying Windows phones; it’s as simple as that.” In addition, he continued, Cyanogen is working with Microsoft to deeply integrate Cortana into the next version of Cyanogen OS. Eventually, McMaster wants an Android clone that will have “no dependencies on Google” services.
Let’s add all this up. Windows Phone is still dying. Android is the most popular mobile operating system by a wide margin. Microsoft has bought a company that can help its developers easily write apps for Android. And, last but not least, it has partnered with an Android vendor that wants to replace Android’s Google services and that also happens to be working on integrating Microsoft services with Android.
Maybe we won’t see Microsoft Android by 2017. But I’m certain we’ll see Cyanogenmod with Windows services locked in. For all practical purposes, it will be Microsoft’s Android.
Windows Phone? It won’t see the decade’s end, and if you blink you’ll miss the news that Microsoft is no longer supporting it. (Yes, I know the Windows Phone name has given way to Windows 10 Mobile — as if that was going to be the trick that finally got people buying Microsoft phones — but nobody cares.)
Put all the pieces together and I believe Microsoft has already decided to move lock, stock and barrel to Android. It just hasn’t come out and announced it yet.