Android Intelligence Analysis

The Microsoft-Android transformation is about to affect us all

Blink and you might miss it, but Microsoft is little by little reshaping Google's mobile ecosystem for the better — and all signs suggest it's only getting started.

Microsoft/Google/JR Raphael

Android Intelligence Analysis

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I'm starting to feel like a broken record here, but man: Microsoft really is shaping up to be one of the most interesting forces in the Android ecosystem this year.

As the company gears up to release its first homegrown Android phone, the unusually dual-screened Surface Duo, we're seeing more and more signs of how it's bending Google's virtual neighborhood to suit its needs. And the effects of those efforts could end up having a surprisingly broad impact on Android — one that'd reach every corner of the ecosystem and all of us who use it, whether or not a Microsoft-branded device is involved.

That's exactly the case with Microsoft's latest Android-adjusting move, revealed in a recent low-profile post on the site Medium. The article details a new collaborative plan between Google and Microsoft (better known as "The Hell Hath Frozen Over Amigos"). The goal is simultaneously simple and supremely ambitious: to make it easier for developers to create rich progressive web apps that'd be virtually indistinguishable from traditional Android apps in both function and presentation — and that'd exist in the Play Store, where you'd find and download 'em just like any regular ol' title. In fact, you'd probably never even know anything different was going on, and that's kinda the whole point.

Progressive web apps have actually been available in the Play Store for a while now, but this latest shift aims to make it easier than ever for developers to create 'em — and to do so using simple tools that'd bring more fully featured, native-app-like experiences into their offerings. Thanks to the new setup, Play-Store-hosted progressive web apps will soon be able to support app shortcuts, customized status bars, and advanced forms of notifications — all with minimal extra effort from their developers.

That last part is key — and what really clues us into how Microsoft is increasingly working to twist Android to its advantage and usher us all into its vision for a post-platform future.

Microsoft and the expanding Android ecosystem

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of this, let me re-emphasize: The most important part of this whole effort is the fact that you'll almost certainly never be aware of it on any surface level. And, quite frankly, that's the beauty and the brilliance of it all. But understanding what's happening is still important if you want to keep tabs on the ever-shifting nature of our mobile-tech reality — and since you're reading a column called Android Intelligence, well, I'm assuming that you do.

So a progressive web app, in case that incredibly bland-sounding name doesn't ring a bell, is basically a special sort of packaging that allows a website to look and act like an app and emulate its more advanced functions. That means it can run offline (and thus feel fast, even when your network connection is not) as well as manage notifications, interact with local hardware, and exist in its own standalone app-like structure, with an icon in your app drawer and all the other standard fixins (to use the technical term).

Unlike a traditional Android app, though, a progressive web app can run on a computer, too — any computer — in that same single form. And that means it's way easier and more economical for developers to maintain a single progressive web app and have that one version of their program run everywhere.

And if the end result is just as good as what you'd get with a native app — or close enough to seem practically the same, for most real-world purposes — then there's no real downside. It's a win-win-win, for developers, for gatekeepers like Microsoft and Google, and for us feline-impersonating land-people who rely on Android phones.

For Microsoft, the move means more and more apps could run in identical forms on both Windows and Android — and thus despite the fact that it's venturing into uncharted territory by fully embracing Android and steering folks into its own mini-ecosystem within Google's universe, it can begin to offer a surprisingly consistent experience for anyone embracing a mix of Android and Windows (a fairly common combo for enterprise productivity and even general consumer use).

For Google, it means the amount of exceptional Android apps will only continue to grow and become more diverse. And remember, it isn't just about Android for Google, either; the company is equally interested in pushing Chrome OS forward, and the presence of Android apps on Chromebooks is an important part of that picture. Remember, too, that Google recently started offering up progressive web apps in place of Android apps in the Play Store on Chromebooks at times — a move that I theorized could hint at eventual plans to turn the Play Store into a streamlined source of different types of apps for both Chrome OS and Android (which was a theory that a Google manager who works in that area retweeted with a party-face emoji and an applause emoji, incidentally; interpret as you will).

And for us, well, it means the benefits associated with all that stuff — the more consistent software experiences across multiple platforms, the more diverse options for software on Android, and so on — will be at our fingertips, no matter what types of devices we use in different areas of our lives.

And all of that is still only the start of the ways in which Microsoft is indirectly working to improve the state of affairs all across Android — and even further throughout the greater Google ecosystem.

The broader Microsoft-Android landscape

In the latest issue of my newsletter, I talked about how Microsoft's move to step up its Android software development game is giving me fresh optimism about the company's potential to shake up the sad state of Android upgrades.

That's because Microsoft just days ago formed its own in-house development team to "handle post-launch software updates" and "add new features and experiences over time" for that upcoming Surface Duo device (and presumably also its successors). While it's slightly strange that Microsoft didn't have its own in-house software team for the product up 'til now — instead relying on externally contracted developers for the job — the fact that it's investing in establishing its own local squad for that purpose at this point, so close to the device's likely debut, makes me hopeful the reason is at least in part that the company wants to be prepared to handle post-sales software support properly.

It's something I've been hopeful of before, albeit in a much more guarded way. As I wrote earlier this year:

Outside of Google and its own Pixel line of products, most Android phone-makers do a consistently terrible job of sending out software updates to their users. The data says it all, and despite heavily hyped narratives to the contrary, things aren't really getting much better — not by any meaningful measure.

The underlying reason is simple: Outside of Google, most device-makers don't have the motivation to make timely and ongoing post-sales software support a priority. I mean, think about it: They make their money mostly by selling you hardware. Software updates require time and resources, and the companies doing all that legwork don't get anything tangible back in return. If anything, updates arguably work against most device-makers' interests, as getting phone-improving updates early and often makes your current phone seem consistently new, fresh, and current enough to keep using.

And what do the companies making those devices want you to do? Yup, you guessed it: buy new phones as frequently as possible.

Right now, Google really is the sole exception to that rule within the realm of Android — the only company for whom selling you hardware is less of a primary goal and more of a way to draw you in deeper to its software-and-service-driven primary business. Well, guess what other company also fits that same description? Yes, indeedly: none other than everyone's favorite (or maybe sometimes not-so-favorite) Windows warrior.

Factor in the fact that Microsoft is also the sole Android-involved company outside of Google that has actual experience at providing timely software updates on any large scale — not to mention a history of treating that process as a priority — and you can see why, now more than ever, I'm feeling optimistic about how Microsoft could potentially reshape the expectations around Android upgrades in a way Google by itself has never managed to do.

And if all of that weren't enough, let's not forget all the ways Microsoft has been indirectly improving Google's Chrome browser lately as well. From memory handling to tab management and smaller touches such as file drag-and-drop behavior and in-browser spellcheck effectiveness, the company once known as Google's archenemy is offering up lots of its engineering efforts to enhance the lives of Chrome users (as a side effect of the fact that its own Edge browser now uses the same Google-managed code base as Chrome, but regardless).

And that's to say nothing of the fact that Google's on the brink of unveiling actual Windows app support for Chromebooks in the enterprise — a move that'll further break down the remaining barriers between Microsoft's universe and Google's domain. Truly, for anyone paying attention, the creeping (and generally quite positive!) Microsoft influence on Google ecosystems is one of the biggest mobile-tech stories of 2020.

Only time will tell whether Microsoft's first Android phone ends up being worth owning, all in all, or whether it proves to be a compromise-laden flop. But in a way, it almost doesn't matter — at least, not in any big-picture sense. The story here is really less about that one device and more about the ongoing Google ecosystem investments that product and the strategies around it are causing Microsoft to make.

Two once-sworn enemies, working together in user-serving harmony. What a weird, wild world we live in.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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