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Should Windows Phone run Android apps?

Rumor has it that Microsoft is planning to support Android applications on its Windows Phone platform. Does this make any business sense?

Android Windows

This comes right at the heels of what is supposedly a confirmation from insider sources that Nokia is forking Android. Nokia is being acquired by Microsoft, and the Finnish company had been Microsoft’s main partner in producing and marketing Windows Phone through its Lumia line. But with mounting challenges from inexpensive Android-powered smartphones in the low-end of the market, the company likely plans to strengthen it position in this segment by launching its own Android devices.

Nokia is likely to fork Android — meaning it will run the open-source aspect of the platform, but not Google’s mobile services framework — giving it better control over the app and content ecosystem (and the revenue stream that comes with it). We earlier argued that Nokia could follow Amazon’s model with the Kindle Fire line. Nokia could run its own mail, navigation, gaming and other services, plus its own app marketplace. There’s no saying whether it would be as successful as Amazon and its Appstore, but the wider availability of Android apps might be an advantage over the existing S40 apps on the Ovi store that the Asha line currently supports.

How about the developer community?

For Microsoft to support Android apps on Windows Phone — does it make any sense at all to run your main competitor’s applications on your own main mobile platform?

This could have some serious implications on the developer community and the viability of Windows Phone as a platform. Sure, Windows Phone development does have its advantages, but it also comes with a few drawbacks. For developers, supporting a third ecosystem after iOS and Android does take a toll on resources. If Microsoft started running Android apps on Windows Phone, this might discourage developers from building native apps, because their own Android apps will run on Windows Phones anyway.

Still, running Android apps on Windows Phone could be a boon for Microsoft because the company would no longer have to worry about the lack of quantity (and perhaps quality) in terms of apps on Windows Phone. There are potential risks, but it’s a tradeoff that Redmond might be willing to consider.

There is actually a precedent here. BlackBerry, which has, for so long, held out on opening its services to other platforms, has started supporting Android. First, it launched its BBM service on both iOS and Android late last year. Now BlackBerry is starting to support installing Android APKs in its latest OS update. In fact, the BlackBerry OS now supposedly runs a stripped-down version of Android.

Similarly, Microsoft could support Android apps through several means: virtualization, an added app layer over Windows Phone, or through app store conversion of APKs, just like how BlackBerry used to require conversion of APKs into BARs.

Android apps: soon the standard for mobile platforms?

Suddenly, I feel nostalgic about all these platform considerations. It reminds me of the time when IBM and Microsoft fought over the PC market in the 1980s and 1990s. While IBM wanted to enforce tighter control with its proprietary OS/2, Microsoft’s DOS and Windows was still dominant in terms of market share, even though OS/2 was supposedly technically superior. OS/2 ended up supporting DOS and Windows (through virtualization), and the rest was history.

If anything, Android apps might soon be the standard for distributing software over smartphone and other mobile platforms. We now see third-party platform makers support APKs, including those from Finnish firm Jolla and Chinese Baidu Yi, among others.

Here’s a bold prediction: apart from iOS, most other smartphone platforms will soon support Android apps, in some way.