Android robot

Why Microsoft can’t drop Windows Phone to fork Android

With PC sales declining and attention increasingly switching towards mobile devices, old stalwart Microsoft is under pressure. There is a belief that the company entered the mobile operating system race too late, and that unless drastic action is taken, they will be unable to compete with Google and Apple in the future.

Whilst there is no denying Microsoft’s current difficulties, it is worth remembering that Windows Phone has by no means proven to be a complete disaster. In Europe, the mobile OS has a 10.3% market share and is growing.

Following an article by Charles Arthur on The Guardian’s website, there has been increasing debate about whether Microsoft will abandon Windows Phone, in order to develop a new OS based on the Android Open Source Project.

The AOSP is the part of Android’s code that includes much of the OS’ core functionality. However, it does not contain Google’s services, like Gmail, Google Maps and Google Drive.

Even accounting for development by Nokia (who are soon to be acquired by Microsoft) of a new OS based on the AOSP, the idea that the Windows Phone platform will be shelved appears nothing more than speculation.

That is not to say that big changes won’t come. Satya Nadella was recently appointed CEO and will be looking for ways to reinvigorate Microsoft.

There are many limitations facing Nadella, though, as Microsoft is still primarily a software company. Transforming it into a fully-fledged hardware company – competing in the ultra-competitive mobile device sector – would be fraught with difficulties.

Even after completing the purchase of Nokia, Microsoft it won’t have anywhere near the level of weapons in its arsenal in order to make an effective switch to mobile hardware.

Sure, Nokia has proven that it can comfortably hold its own against Samsung and Apple when it comes to developing smartphone hardware. But a handset based on the AOSP is an entirely unremarkable proposition, and as such, the venture would struggle to make up the huge amount of ground that has already been lost.

Arthur suggests forming partnerships with Chinese manufacturers who are looking to establish a foothold in western markets. This is because many well-established international companies would be reluctant to back a new OS based on the AOSP. Doing so would mean having to leave the Open Handset Alliance (the group of manufacturers who make devices with Google services installed), due to the organisation’s terms of membership.

Of course, Microsoft could continue to focus on software rather hardware. But whilst the company has historically made its money through licensing software, the fact remains that Windows Phone is already a more attractive proposition than any fork of the AOSP could become.

Chinese manufacturers, for example, have already shown themselves to be perfectly capable of producing their own reasonably impressive forks of the AOSP.

Therefore, if hardware is not the answer and Microsoft is being squeezed tightly by software rivals, that leaves the option of becoming a services company. Yet, after years of trying, the company has failed to develop a set of mobile services that come close to competing with those offered by Google.

Microsoft has even been reduced to licensing Nokia’s HERE mapping platform (a service it won’t take outright ownership of), such were the deficiencies of its own offering.

None of this is to say that Microsoft can’t go on to successfully develop its own services under new leadership. The point is that an OS based on the AOSP would not help the company in this quest.

In Android and iOS, there are two strong platforms through which Microsoft could market a new generation of mobile services. And if Nadella feels that the company should continue to distribute its own OS as part of this effort, then Windows Phone is a strong product with decent foundations in the important European market.