Microsoft should make Google the April Fool

Google has given Microsoft a great competitive opening, and it's one the software giant shouldn't let go. Opportunities like this just don't come `round often enough, or so rightly timed.

Twice in about a week, Google has cracked down on Android licensing. From one perspective, the search and information giant is asserting needed leadership. From another, Google is closing the door on so-called openness of its software. Either way, Microsoft has a hook to grab developers and encourage further OEM adoption of Windows Phone 7.

Quick recap: Last week, Google revealed that it wouldn't immediately release Android 3.0 as open source; there was no real time horizon given. My analysis "Honeycomb tests Google's 'Open Principles'" questions whether the search and information giant broke promises made to the open-source community. From the standpoint of controlling fragmentation, withholding Honeycomb makes business sense, however.

Something else: According to a report from Bloomberg Business Week, Google also is cracking down on which handset manufacturers get access to Android. They'll need Android chief Andy Rubin's blessing to get the newest operating system version, according to the report. For a mobile operating system that's supposed to be open, Android suddenly looks closed. Again, there is business justification -- Google trying to diminish Android fragmentation. However, handset manufacturers like HTC or Sony may find Google suddenly resistent to skinning Android with their own custom user interfaces. They use these skins to differentiate the experience between their phones from others running Android; perhaps no longer.

Google is between a rock and a hard place, and Microsoft should put on the squeeze. The rock: Android absolutely is fragmented and the user experience inconsistent, either because of the different versions or customized skins. As of March 15, only 1.7 percent of Android devices ran the newest versions -- 2.3 or 2.3.3, according to official Android Developers stats. By comparison: 61.3 percent Android 2.2; 29 percent v2.1; 4.8 percent v1.6; and 3 percent v1.5. Android 2.3 released about four months ago. By comparison, because Apple distributes updates directly -- and not handset OEMs or cellular carriers -- the install base has largely moved to iOS 4.x.

The hard place: Google has repeatedly promoted Android's openness as a compelling differentiator. By taking more control over the operating system, Google takes it away from carriers, developers and OEMs. Meanwhile, the actions open up accusations that:

  • Android was only open as long as Google benefitted
  • Google used so-called openness as a Trojan Horse to grab market share
  • Google is responding to competition, such as Amazon's appstore for Android

It's lose-lose for Google no matter what it does. Hey, that's great for Microsoft. Suddenly, the playing field between Android and Windows Phone is more even. Apple's iOS, HP's WebOS and Research in Motion's BlackBerry OS are not direct competitors to Windows Phone because they aren't licensed to third parties. Android is the competitor Microsoft should worry most about it, because the OS vies for the same OEM partners as Windows Phone 7. Surely some of these partners both companies share will be unhappy with Google's Android about-face. Microsoft should exploit Google's foolishness:

1. Take the offensive by blasting Google -- Android isn't so open and customizable after all. Google largely controls Android, like Microsoft does with Windows 7. Open-source isn't so much a differentiator after all. Which company is doing the better job controlling in a way that benefits carriers, developers, end user customers and handset OEMs? Android is fragmented. Windows Phone 7 is not, in fact new updates are rolling out to most (is it all?)  WP7 smartphones fairly rapidly and consistently.

2. Ask partners the question: "Who can you trust?" Google broke its promises. Microsoft didn't. Microsoft set out clear guidelines for Windows Phone 7 handsets and update delivery, never changing them. Partners are assured of the same customer experience with Microsoft now as before they shipped the first WP7 phones. By contrast, Google said one thing (Android is open) but did something else (closed the door -- even if arguably partially). What will Google close next? Where will the next broken promise be?

3. Apply David Thinking to developer engagement. In the Biblical battle between David and Goliath, the giant played by one set of rules. David chose to change the rules, which favored his strengths rather than those of Goliath. Research done by political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft shows that underdogs (The Davids) win 71.5 percent of engagements against Goliaths when changing the rules to benefit their strengths -- like David using a slingshot, pebbles and his small size rather than doning armor and sword.

Microsoft is already way behind in the new mobile applications war. The company could play by Apple's or Google's app store rules, or it could change them. Yesterday, Microsoft revealed there are 11,500 apps at the Windows Phone 7 app store; Apple claims over 300,000. "From the beginning, we have always been focused on quality over quantity," Brandon Watson writes on the Windows Phone Developer Blog. Quality is a great focus point for WP7 and third-party apps. It changes the rules -- the priorities; better apps rather than lots of them. Microsoft has other strengths it should leverage, but that's topic for a future post.

4. Use IDC's smartphone OS forecast as bait to hook more partners. On March 29, the analyst firm predicted that Windows Phone would move from fifth to second place in smartphone OS market share by 2015, based on shipments. I'm not convinced, which is why I pledged to "kiss Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's feet" should it come true. But I'm not the one Microsoft needs to convince. It's a viable forecast from a major analyst firm -- Microsoft should use it. If Microsoft can be No. 2, why not No. 1? It's the question to ask every Windows Phone partner. By the way, Android is forecast to be No. 1 with 45.4 percent market share compared to Windows Phone's 20.9 percent.

5. Partner with Facebook for a Windows Phone social handset. There have been widespread rumors of a Facebook phone (which have been denied, sort of) running Android. Well, well, that's not so likely now with Rubin assuming lordship over Android approvals, since Facebook and Google are major competitors. But Facebook and Microsoft are longstanding partners, and they've grown tighter over the past 18 months. A Facebook smartphone running Microsoft's OS would be a helluva coup and could be quite good for Windows Phone adoption and future third-party development.

Wrapping up, regardless of its motivations, Google has slapped Android partners across the face and pulled out a bat for some major head breaking. It's April Fools Day, as I write. Google already is the fool. Microsoft shouldn't become one by missing the opportunity to metaphorically bury Android and dance on its grave. The real thing comes later.

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