Android Intelligence Analysis

Why Android apps on Windows will be an uphill battle

Microsoft supposedly has a plan for a new kind of Android-Windows marriage — but it isn't quite as simple as it seems on the surface.

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Microsoft/Google/JR Raphael

Android Intelligence Analysis

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Well, here's a tasty little somethin' to start your December off on an interesting note: As early as next year, you could be running Android apps — yes, Android apps — on a Windows computer.

Take a second to let the sheer weirdness and surreal nature of that sink in: Just weeks after we got our first look at Google's new system to let Windows apps run on Chromebooks (for enterprises, at least), Microsoft appears to be turning the tables and working on a way to bring a similar sort of advantage into its home turf.

Word of the apparent effort seeped onto this sloshy ol' internet of ours over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, while most of us here in the U.S. were happily turkeyed up and tuned out. But it's a subject well worth digesting — especially because, unless Microsoft's got one heck of a surprise up its sleeve, this boundary-defying development may not be everything it appears to be.

Ready to think it through together?

The Android-apps-on-Windows plan

First things first, the details: Over the aforementioned holiday weekend, the enterprising organisms over at Windows Central broke word about a top-secret (and perhaps just a teensy bit foamy) Microsoft effort called Project Latte.

Project Latte, the site reports, "would allow app developers to bring their Android apps to Windows 10 with little to no code changes" by packaging them in a particular way and then submitting them into the Microsoft Store. We mortal keyboard-pecking chickens, then, would presumably be able to install said apps directly from that storefront and run 'em on our Windows systems as if they were regular native programs. And all of that could show up within a run-of-the-mill Windows update as early as next fall.

Intriguing, no? Absolutely. While the genuine need for Android apps within Windows is arguably less essential than the need for alternative app types within a platform like Chrome OS, the reality is that we're all increasingly mobile-centric creatures. Most of us live on our phones and think of them more and more as our "primary devices." And so there's something appealing and potentially advantageous about being able to use the same apps you know from that environment on your work or personal computer — whether that means loading up the YouTube Android app in order to enjoy offline downloads on your (theoretical, post-2020) business trip or installing the Google Calendar, Keep, or Maps apps for offline-capable and more fully featured experiences on those fronts.

So why am I skeptical about Microsoft's ability to pull this off, then? Why could Google bring both Android apps and Windows apps into Chrome OS but Microsoft might not be able to do the same thing convincingly within its own terrain? The reason comes down to three seemingly simple but incredibly consequential words: Google Play Services.

Google Play Services isn't a name most average schmoes know — nor should it be. But it's a critically important part of the Android experience and something that has a massive impact on what Android apps are able to do.

Among other things, Google Play Services allows apps to interact with your location, to handle in-app purchases, and — perhaps most critical of all — to provide you with push notifications about important events (like those incoming emails and messages we all so tenderly adore). As Google itself puts it in its official Android developer documentation:

Google Play Services gives you the freedom to use the newest [interfaces] for popular Google services without worrying about device support.

That bit about "device support" is key to the point we're building up to here. Google Play Services is a totally separate element from the actual Android operating system — the open-source code that any company can access, modify, and use in any way it wants. That means a company has to have a special licensing deal with Google in order to have it available on any given device. And traditionally, Google has limited such arrangements only to companies creating approved Android devices (as well as Chromebooks, via its own native Chrome OS-Play Store integration).

That means with any system Microsoft creates for allowing Android apps to be repackaged and made available within Windows, Google Play Services almost certainly won't be present. And that, in turn, means the notion of developers being able to simply drag and drop their existing Android apps over to the Microsoft Store for easy cross-platform compatibility suddenly isn't looking so simple anymore.

Android apps and the hidden Google layer challenge

So what would happen if you were to bring an Android app into an environment where Google Play Services wasn't available? I'll tell ya, you curious little kitten: It'd break. In many cases, certain app functions wouldn't work as expected, and you'd end up getting all sorts of errors and other unpleasant (and maybe even odorous) oddities.

That's at least in part why so many Android apps still aren't available on Amazon's Appstore marketplace, for one especially relevant-seeming example. That setup has been around since way back in 2011, and it's the one app storefront on all of Amazon's Kindle and Fire devices. Those are pretty popular products, by most counts.

And yet — well, go take a look for yourself. You sure as hell won't find any Google-made apps on those virtual shelves, which is probably no huge surprise. But try searching for other apps you use and rely on. I tried with a handful of tools I use myself and have recommended in various contexts over recent months, and next to nothing I need is available there. No Authy (for cross-device two-factor authentication), no Eero (for home office internet control), no IFTTT (for time-saving task automation), and no Hue (for internet-connected lighting adjustments).

Even something basic like the Bank of America app is missing in action, as are apps for other major financial and credit institutions. And in an ironic-seeming twist, Microsoft itself hasn't seen fit to put its own centerpiece Office products into that environment.

On the rare occasion that you do find an app you want in the Amazon Appstore (which, yes, is actually styled like that, for some annoying reason), there's no obvious indication of when it was last updated. Upon close inspection, many apps appear to be significantly behind their Play Store counterparts, and quite a few seem to be outright abandoned in the Amazon jungle.

When you think back to everything we just finished talking about, it's not too difficult to understand why. Given the lack of Google Play Services and the suite of tools around it, the onus falls upon developers to adjust their apps in these alternate arenas. At best, that requires extra effort, especially when it comes to ongoing updates. At worst, it can end up costing the developer extra money and/or resulting in a worse user experience. And in any of those cases, the gain is presumably questionable enough that it simply doesn't end up being worth the while.

For another view of life without Google's layer of under-the-hood elements in place, we need to look no further than the recent efforts by Huawei to ship Android phones without any manner of Google services involved. A reviewer from The Verge summed up the frustrating nature of that experience:

Not every app will work properly even if you’re able to install it. ... [and] it’s not just the apps themselves, but often the cloud services that power them. For example, Uber uses [Google services] to determine your location and for its mapping data. Some other apps, like The Guardian, work more or less normally but pop up an error message on boot saying Google Play Services are required.

And just like Huawei — and just like Amazon — Microsoft will likely be facing that same awkward conflict in trying to get developers to bring their Android apps over to Windows.

Now, look, credit where credit's due: Microsoft's come an impressively long way in worming its way into Android and transforming it into a fertile home for its own sub-ecosystem — to the benefit of us all, really, here in the land o' Googley matters. Completing that circle and bringing Android back into Windows, though, sure seems to be a much trickier feat.

If the current predictions are correct, we should see for ourselves how it all plays out before long.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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