AH TechTalk: Android, Cyanogen, Microsoft and Windows

Microsoft has been producing and supporting a mobile version of Windows for decades now. The first versions of mobile Windows were called Windows CE, which was followed by a range of PocketPC operating systems. PocketPC was followed by Windows Mobile, which reached version 6.5. Windows Mobile was replaced by Windows Phone 7, through to 8.1. Microsoft now have Windows 10 Mobile but support for the platform has been very much reduced. Microsoft has learned many painful lessons during the last twenty something years: early mobile versions of Windows were relatively power hungry and complicated compared with competitor platforms such as Palm OS, which meant the hardware was often considerably more expensive. Windows Mobile had some success and was adopted by businesses and consumers across the world, but lacked the consistency of approach compared with more modern operating systems. Customers had to ensure to install the right version of a given application depending on the processor type in their device as one example.

Early in the current decade, Windows Phone 7 arrived and was supported by a number of manufacturers including Samsung and HTC. The operating system was smooth, performed well and offered strong Facebook integration at a time when other platforms could not. Microsoft opened an app store and poured millions to encouraging developers to write applications, but the platform was restricted and controlled, which did not encourage developers to use it. The world had also moved on: like BlackBerry OS, the Microsoft platform had turned up to the party too late. Android and iOS have largely carved up the smartphone arena between them and Windows Phone typically doesn't merit its own slice of the pie, instead is lumped in with "Others." Manufacturers and developers do not want to support a platform that has limited users. Users did not want to buy into a platform that has few third party supporters. It even looked as though Microsoft bought Nokia to ensure that at least one manufacturer supported the platform!

Essentially, Microsoft was doing it wrong. It was using the mobile platform as a route into getting customers to stick with its products. With such small numbers of people using Windows Phone devices, restricting a good Office 365 experience to Windows Phone was not working. Microsoft's logic appears to be that if a customer used Microsoft Office but wanted to work on the go, he or she would have to use the Windows Phone platform. For consumers who have used a competitor platform for a few years, switching to an alternative is not an easy decision. Thankfully, since buying Nokia, Microsoft have now realised that the way to encourage customers to use its services is not to try to lock them in via a platform but instead, make the service available on as many platforms as is viable. This is why Office 365 on the Android platform in 2016 is a good experience.

Where next for Microsoft? We've seen how the company had plans to allow Android applications to run on the Windows 10 Mobile platform, which have now been shelved: instead, Microsoft have build an application bridge to allow developers to port iOS applications quickly and easily to the Windows 10 Mobile platform plus the universal Windows application idea, that means an application written for the desktop optimised flavour of Windows can also run on a smartphone or tablet. We have seen Microsoft working with Cyanogen for a year now - you remember the fork of Android where the developers have pledged to wrestle control of Android away from Google? Microsoft's aim with the Cyanogen platform is to "integrate and distribute Microsoft's consumer apps and services across core categories, including productivity, messaging, utilities, and cloud-based services." Microsoft are working on integrating their services into Cyanogen OS, including Cortana, the Microsoft digital voice assistant.

We've seen Microsoft buying up technology and software companies that could be putting together the building blocks of designing their own fork of Android, in a similar vein to Amazon's Fire OS, Cyanogen's platform and a whole host of Chinese companies. One of the foundations of Microsoft's project to allow Windows 10 Mobile to run Android applications is to allow Android developers to design their applications to use either the Google Services embedded into most devices or Microsoft's competitor services. This experience could prove useful for the Cyanogen division. And we have seen BlackBerry take Android and modify if for their own purposes, deliberately hardening the device against attack with emphasis on security.

Microsoft's recent applications for the Android work well, and Android as a platform is supremely flexible. It doesn't have to be Google Android to work well; a Microsoft Android device could very well be on the cards. Perhaps the Microsoft Surface Phone, the vapourware smartphone that was rumoured to be the showcase device for Windows 10 Mobile, will instead be released running on the Cyanogen platform with deep-rooted links to Microsoft's existing platforms and services?

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About the Author

David Steele

Senior Staff Writer
I grew up with 8-bit computers and moved into PDAs in my professional life, using a number of devices from early Windows CE clamshells and later. Today, my main devices are a Nexus 5X, a Sony Xperia Z Tablet and a coffee cup.