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InfoQ Homepage News Editorial: Microsoft’s Plan to Embrace and Extend Mobile

Editorial: Microsoft’s Plan to Embrace and Extend Mobile

When Microsoft announced they would start supporting Android and iOS applications on Windows Phone, it left a lot of people scratching their head. The common assumption is this would encourage more people to focus on those platforms and just use this new capability for a quick port.

But there is a plan behind this, a plan Microsoft has successfully used in the past. To understand it, you need to go back to the early 90’s when Microsoft was trying to make headway in the office productivity market with products such as Word and Excel.

Microsoft of the 80’s and 90’s

The fundamental problem with Microsoft’s products is what is known as the network effect. Users were already invested in products such as Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect. More importantly, their documents were invested in those products. Switching from Lotus to Excel didn’t make any sense if their spreadsheets, and the spreadsheets of all their colleagues, were stuck in the old format.

The first step to breaking the network effect is being able to join the network. Microsoft did this by embracing the file formats of their competitors. From early on, Word and Excel could read and write the formats of the products they hoped to replace. This allowed users the opportunity to try them out without losing their previous investments or disrupting the workflow of others.

The next step is to extend the platform, offer functions and features that others don’t. For Word and Excel, many of those features required saving the document using Microsoft’s format. There was nothing malicious in this; their competitors’ formats simply didn’t have a way to express everything that Microsoft’s products could do.

The last step, extinguish, isn’t something Microsoft actually did. Rather, it’s the natural result of successfully offering a better product long enough to establish their own network effect.

Microsoft of the Past Decade

The last serious challenge Microsoft won was the “browser wars”. Having established themselves as the dominant player, they no longer took their competitors seriously. Innovations such as the iPhone and iPad were ignored while their own Windows Mobile and Windows Tablet product lines languished without proper funding.

When Microsoft finally realized that they lost the heart of both the consumer and business market (professionals love their iPads), they rushed to market without a sound migration strategy. Even if we stipulate that Windows Phone and WinRT were technologically superior (which they weren’t), users had no way to try them without losing their investment in iOS and/or Android devices.

Microsoft of Today

In the mobile space, the Microsoft of today is in the same position as the Microsoft of the 90’s. So if they want to follow the same strategy that worked so well back then, the first step is to embrace the file formats of the current leaders.

In the mobile industry, the “file formats” most people care about are the Android application package (APK) and the iOS App Archive. Microsoft can’t consume these directly, but it can consume the source code used to create them.

Assuming developers are willing to recompile their applications for Windows store; this satisfies the “embrace” step needed to allow users to try out their platform without fear of losing their favorite programs.

In order to lure developers and users to stay on the Windows 10 platform, they are exposing Universal Application extensions and concepts such as live tiles. If done correctly, this could result in iOS and Android applications that are “first class” on Windows Phone and have somewhat less functionality on their native hardware.

If Microsoft doesn’t make any mistakes, and their competitors do, this could eventually lead developers to start embracing native Windows development platforms such as C# and make Android/iOS be the “if we get around to it” platform.

There are no guarantees this plan will work. It is a huge gamble on Microsoft’s part but they don’t seem to have any other viable options.

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