Friday 19 October 2012

Cross-platform is the way to go

AMD will shortly be enabling Windows 8 users to run Android apps. I would advise Microsoft to welcome and support this.

Mr Ballmer, surely you won't deprive
your loyal customers of this?

Last year I wrote a blog article on “The Ghost of Vistas Past”, outlining how high important it was to Microsoft that Windows 8 is a success (along with the mistakes from Windows Vista that overshadows the reputation of all future releases). Well, we’re now approaching the release date and I’ve been looking at the pre-release version. Have to say, there have been a lot of Windows 8-bashing comments, but it’s hard to tell whether this is just the new tablet-optimised interface they’re getting used to or something more. At the moment, this could still be anything from a revolutionary ground-breaker to a Vista Mark II. But I’m going to make Microsoft a helpful suggestion regarding their controversial app store.

Firstly, an app store is a good idea. Linux distros were doing this years before there was the iPhone, when it was called “package management”. It’s good because instead of a mish-mash of programs from installation CDs or the internet, there’s a central database which takes care of all installation and updating. And as your computer keeps track of which packages installed which files, if you want to uninstall anything, you can do it properly, instead relying on unreliable uninstallation files that came with the program you don’t want. So far, so good.

The problem is that the range of official Windows 8 apps is reportedly very low. As late as last month (September), it was being reported there were only 2,000 apps, compared to 500,000 for Android. You can argue that it’s good to have a small number of apps that you know are high-quality and reliable, but that’s no good if you can’t find the app that does the job you want. There’s a debate around whether Microsoft is being too stringent accepting apps in the first place,[1] but the real obstacle is incentive to write these apps. There’s no getting round the fact that Apple and Android, having got to the smartphone and tablet markets first, dominate the market. Just like Linux suffered for years from lack of software when Windows dominated the desktop market – which Microsoft used against it – some might say that Microsoft is getting a taste of its own medicine in the smartphone and tablet market.

But help is at hand from AMD. As a result of a collaboration with Bluestacks, it will shortly be possible to run Android apps in Windows 8, on desktops, laptops, tablets, and possibly smartphones. Even if, as Microsoft hopes, their apps store is a bastion of high-quality apps, by adding the choice of Android apps you turn Windows 8 tablets into far more versatile devices. Can’t wait for the latest Angry Birds to be ported to Windows 8? No problem, just install the Android version and away you go.

And the response from Microsoft? Apparently nothing. Their strategy was to encourage developers to write more apps for Windows 8, so I assume this strategy is unchanged. I can’t understand the logic behind this. With Windows Phones still a niche product with no immediate prospect of growth, it makes no commercial sense to write an app for Windows instead of the big two. Even porting an app from one operating system to another is tricky. If neither app writers nor Microsoft are able to put in the work getting apps to run on Windows, one would have thought they’d have welcomed AMD doing the job for them.

And leaving AMD to do their own thing is far from a safe bet. We don’t yet know how reliable this will be. In theory, you can run Windows programs on Linux using wine, but this is such a nightmare to get working, many Linux users don’t bother and use the closest equivalent native Linux program instead. The problem is the masses of fiddly settings you need to tweak to get a Windows program to properly interface with all the Linux components such as sound, graphics, printers, internet, you name it. Crossover is reputedly better, but only because you pay people to do all this fiddly work for you. Even so, the range of programs certified to work using crossover is limited. How much work is AMD going to have to do to get 500,000 Android apps working in Windows? It will depend a lot on how clever their cross-platform component is, and only time will tell. But it would be an awful lot easier if Microsoft threw its weight behind this. They could integrate this into Windows 8, they have deep enough pockets to test and tweak all the apps they want, and I’m sure it would be a better job than AMD/Bluestacks going it alone.

I can only imagine the thing Microsoft stands to lose is pride, especially after years of telling their customers they’re best off sticking to Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Office, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Microsoft Exchange, and Microsoft Everything (or, only where Microsoft doesn’t have a program, something written for Microsoft Windows).[2] It’s one thing being behind in the smartphone/tablet market, but quite another thing to admit it by welcoming apps written for a rival. And it could raise questions. If Microsoft is depending on apps written for Linux-based Android to sell Windows 8, how can they justify refusing to port Microsoft Office to Linux? Serious question.

My advice to Microsoft is that, in the long run, they would be better off forgetting about Microsoft Everything and go back to competing in a cross-platform world. At the moment, Microsoft are hoping that as long as customers need Windows to run Word and Excel, they’ll buy Windows, but with Libreoffice catching up on everyday functions, and file compatibility improving, customers may soon question whether they need Word or Excel in the first place. But where Libreoffice won’t be going any time soon is the advanced features of MS Office. Crossover’s chief selling point is running MS Office on Linux, and many Linux users pay for this. Remove the complication of an emulator and you can expect demand to increase. For every risk posed to Microsoft for going cross-platform, there’s an opportunity.

Will Microsoft embrace multi-platform? So far, it’s hard to imagine them dropping their old models. In 2005 technology columnist Bill Thompson hypothesised a future where Microsoft re-dominates the IT market with its own version of Linux called Micrix. But he didn’t seriously expect Microsoft to remotely consider this route, and they didn’t. Seven years on, I still don’t expect anything this radical, but there is one crucial change: Apple is rapidly overtaking Microsoft as the all-controlling bad guy. Can Microsoft rediscover itself as the guardians of a free IT system. Relive the heyday of Windows 95, the OS that freed you do anything with your computer?

The daft thing is that Microsoft is slow to recognise its own cross-platform successes. The Microsoft Kinect, as well as being quite successful on the X-Box, is a very popular accessory for all sorts of other uses. But wasn’t until hackers took the matter into their own hands that Microsoft realised they were on to a winner. Could we see the same take-up for Android apps in Windows? Microsoft Office on Android tablets? The sooner Microsoft sees this as a good thing, the better.

[1] Of course, the most notoriously stringent app store is Apple’s. The crucial difference is that Apple, as the first entrant into the commercial app market, can get away with it. Few developers want to cut themselves out of Apple’s app market, however many hoops they have to jump through. With the smaller Windows Phone market, the same app developers might decide it’s not worth the hassle.

[2] Although, to be fair, this is still an improvement on Apple. At least with all things Microsoft you get a free choice of hardware. Under Apple’s ideal, you don’t even get a choice on that.

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