What’s next for Microsoft in a world where Android is everywhere?

Yesterday, Google showed us a vision of a world where Android touches every area of your life.

Going for a run? Android on your wrist.

Going for a drive? Android in your car.

Having a party? Android on your TV.

What's the hub for your smart life? Android on your phone.

This is the world Microsoft has been aiming for, in some respects, since the introduction of their Metro design language. Windows Phones look like Windows Tablets look like Windows Laptops look like the Xbox One - and that's great. Thanks to Microsoft's cloud services, much of it plays nicely together, too - the problem is, right now, it doesn't play nice enough together. I can't view or respond to my phone's notifications on my tablet or PC, I can't download the same app on my tablet and my phone and my TV, and there's absolutely no sign of Windows on my wrist with only hints of Windows in my car. Microsoft was perhaps the first to imagine a world where their products, services, and design give you a single, continuous experience regardless of your device and location (three screens and a cloud!), but at the current rate of iteration, Google is going to be first to realize that dream.

Microsoft didn't have to let this happen; they've had all the puzzle pieces for awhile, they've just been too slow about putting them together. Windows RT has been available since late October 2012, but I still can't run Windows Phone apps on my tablet. That feature is coming, but features are always coming - and this won't be a new, unique feature to the platform, but another example of Microsoft reaching feature parity with its competitors. They haven't been been fast to iterate on Windows Phone, either; as great as the Windows Phone 8.1 update is, there was a year and a half between release of WP8 and WP8.1, which is an eternity in tech years. Even then, WP8.1 is mostly about bringing feature parity, rather than bringing something new to the mobile world. The execution on some ideas may be better (Cortana), but those ideas are all still things we've seen before. Microsoft is busy playing catch-up with its phone OS, while Google is getting ready to put their "phone" OS everywhere.

Android's development pace, in comparison, has been breakneck; look at how much Android changed in any given year and a half period since its release. Now, some of that was out of necessity; for the first few years, Android needed drastic improvements to its design and performance, whereas Windows Phone 8 came out the door fast and stable. Regardless of the reasons, though, it creates a mobile landscape in which Microsoft appears to be standing still next to Google's dead-sprint, and Apple's steady, relentless jog.

The only place Microsoft has the definitive advantage is in laptops and hybrids; Google can trumpet the success of Chrome OS all they want by pointing at the Amazon sales rankings, but Microsoft can point to actual sales figures. There's a long, long way to go before Chrome OS is a serious threat to Microsoft's desktop world - but that desktop world is where Google has its trojan horse in the form of the Chrome browser. Much of what Chrome OS is doing with Android can be done almost as well by the browser - just look at MightyText, which already lets me see and respond to text messages, or PushBullet, which already mirrors my phone and tablet's notifications. Google may never own the desktop, but with their strategy, they don't really have to. Their vision of Android being everywhere doesn't require you buy a Chrome OS machine; it just requires you download the Chrome browser.

Apple, for what its worth, seems to have seen much of this coming, and have countered Google's strength of open software and cloud services with their own strength - vertical platform integration. iOS in the car was announced before Android Auto. iOS8 and OS X 10.10 will bring iOS and OS X closer together with Continuity. The iWatch has been rumored to exist by basically every tech site in existence, and something is almost certainly coming, hopefully this year. Apple has been on the TV for years, and the only real missing piece of the puzzle for them now is to get the App Store on their TV solution.

So, we know Google's next moves, and we know Apple's, but what are Microsoft's? Satya Nadella seems to be saying all the right things; mobile first, cloud first certainly the direction the world is moving in. We've already seen moves of a more open Microsoft, as Office has finally made its way to iOS and Android, and though the seeds for that were almost certainly planted in Ballmer's days, it's possible Nadella was the one who finally decided to push it out the door.

The coming year or two will hopefully see the Xbox One running the same apps as their Windows tablets and PCs, and those same tablets and PCs running many of the same apps as Windows Phone. Microsoft has demonstrated Windows in the car, but questions remain about when it will be available and who will support it when it is available. It also relies, at least partially, on developers updating their apps for the car - and given how much trouble Microsoft has historically had getting developers to make apps for Windows Phone, I have to wonder how much support Windows in the car will get. Finally, though there have been rumors of a multi-platform Microsoft smartwatch, but no further information has materialized. Microsoft will certainly move into the wearable space, in some form, but no one really knows what form it will be in and how long it will take.

So what should Microsoft do next? As I see it, they have several options, not all of which are mutually exclusive:

  • Stay the course. Keep pushing Windows Phone, Windows RT, Windows 8, and Xbox One closer and closer together. This may actually work, they just need to start pushing faster. Microsoft can't afford iterate as slowly from 2014 to 2016 as they did from 2012 to 2014. Hopefully, with Nadella at the helm, the next two years will be very exciting. The biggest problem with all of this may be customer's perception of Windows 8, which seems to be mixed at best.
  • Continue to make their software more available. Office is basically everywhere now - why not do the same for IE? I use Chrome on my laptop because it syncs with my phone; if IE was on my phone, then I'd have one less reason to use Chrome. Push for a world where using Microsoft doesn't necessarily mean using Windows, just like using Google doesn't necessarily mean using Android. Google wants to put Android everywhere, but its open nature means Microsoft can put all of their software and services on Android and ride that same wave. If Google is the open cloud company, and Apple is the vertically-integrated hardware company, the place for Microsoft might be somewhere comfortably in the middle.
  • Drop Windows Phone and shift their phone strategy to Android. Now that Microsoft has their own in-house phone team, they could develop first-party Android phones. This is probably the least likely strategy in the short-term, but you never know what will happen in the next few years. There was a time when the idea of Apple hardware running Windows was laughable, too. This would allow them to leverage things like Android Wear and Android in the car without having to invest in those strategies internally. Still, this is my least-preferred option; as much as I'd love to see Nokia's old hardware design team make a fantastic Android device, I'd rather see a more competitive mobile landscape with at least three major players.
  • Stay the course with Windows Phone and develop a first-party Android phone. Continue developing Windows Phone and great Windows Phone hardware, but spin-off a piece of Nokia's old design team to push out an Android-running, Microsoft-developed smartphone - like the Nokia X line, but without the customized build of Android. This may come across as unfocused, but if anyone has the resources to hedge their bets like this, its a company the size of Microsoft. If they start this project now - even if they don't release it - they'd be ready for a worst-case scenario where Windows Phone, Windows in the car, and their wearables don't get the kind of traction they want.
  • Figure out what the next big tech shift is, and beat everyone there. Apple beat everyone else to the first modern smartphone, and now it looks like Google will beat everyone else when it comes to a single experience on all platforms. Rather than chasing Apple and Google, ideally Microsoft will forge their own path to...whatever it is we haven't thought of yet. This may lead back to the idea of yielding the mobile space to Android and developing their own Android hardware, so that they can at least have a strong mobile presence while they work on whatever is coming next.

Regardless of what Microsoft does going forward, I desperately want them to succeed. A mobile world dominated primarily by Android and, to a lesser extent, Apple, might be good in the short-term for consumers, but in the long-run, innovation will stagnate without enough competition. Google was forced to sprint with Android for so long because Apple had such a big head-start; for them, it was iterate-quickly-or-die. I don't know what Microsoft will do next, but I hope for their sake and ours that they do it much, much faster than they have been. The time for caution is over.

Originally posted on writing about tech.