The growing case for Windows support of Google Play

Microsoft’s announcement of WinUI and its attempt to unify the worlds of UWA and Win32 cold be important steps toward addressing what has been the Achilles heel of the Windows touch experience; the lack of touch-optimized apps. This has been especially disadvantageous for 2-in-1s such as the company’s own Surface devices and even more so for the sleek Surface Pro X, where it serves as a major strike against a device that is otherwise competitive with the iPad Pro. When a Surface is stable on its namesake, its Windows-based multitasking runs circles around the iPad’s hodgepodge of split-screen apps with a single overlay, but why cede the handheld experience?

Among Microsoft’s main desktop competitors, Google was the first to address the touchscreen gap in Chrome OS by opening what had previously been a web app-exclusive environment to Google Play. Since then, Google has seemed intent on turning Chromebooks into jacks-of-all-OSes, creating support for Linux with the Crostini framework, and now opening the door to Windows apps for enterprise Chrome OS devices.

More recently, Apple shared the surprising news that ARM-based Macs will be able to run iPhone and iPad apps. Apple’s motivation, though, differs from Google’s. While Apple has offered no hint that it intends to change course and release touchscreen Macs, the influx of iPadOS apps would help make up for the lack of developer interest in certain Mac app categories, notably games. Indeed, from the glimpse we saw at the WWDC virtual keynote, it seems as if both iOS and iPad apps would run in windows, allowing the landscape mode-fixed Mac to avoid the problem of sideways apps with which a keyboard-connected iPad must contend.

The upshot of both moves is that Windows will soon be the only mainstream desktop operating system that can’t tap into a robust mobile app catalog Allowing Android apps as a peer app type within Windows would provide, at minimum, a short-term way to address the deficit. Today, of course, there are a few third-party options for running Android apps on Windows. The nine-year-old Bluestacks, for instance, is designed mostly for games and doesn’t create as transparent an experience as Android apps have on Chrome OS.

The argument that allowing Android apps disincentivizes native Windows development has some merit. While Apple’s and Google’s allowance of mobile apps on their desktop environments can also be said to discourage native Mac and web app development, both companies at least control the guest mobile environment. That would not be true for Microsoft. And while companies such as Amazon, Huawei, BlackBerry, and Nokia have supported Android apps over the years without Google Play outside of China, the most satisfying experience would likely require building significantly on whatever understanding Microsoft has forged with Google for the Surface Duo.

Indeed, there are signs of that that demonstrate how both companies are willing to forego native applications. Microsoft and Google recently agreed to work together to strengthen the proposition of Progressive Web Apps on Google Play. And Microsoft recently expressed its enthusiasm for better integrating these apps into Windows. That’s certainly an easier way to leverage Android app momentum into Windows, but it may be just a precursor to full Google Play integration.

Microsoft and Google would benefit from such collaboration against the backdrop of Apple competition. As Microsoft seeks to again establish a toe-hold in mobile, it wants Android developers to adopt its APIs and guidelines. Opening up Windows to these developers would provide a stronger incentive for developers to do so. Meanwhile, Google has long struggled to have more of a presence on larger screens. Lenovo’s Chromebook Duet represents a step in the right direction, but for the foreseeable future, Chrome OS will be a small percentage of the desktop market. Plus, allowing Windows users to have their PCs linked to their Google Play purchases would provide Windows users a stronger incentive to choose Android phones versus iPhones.

Speaking of which, while Microsoft’s launch of the Surface Duo represents its strongest embrace of a non-Windows platform to date, the company has been trending toward platform agnosticism as it focuses more on cloud services that it could extend to Android developers and users of those apps. Where a conflict between app stores may have once stood as a barrier, Microsoft is also opening up here, allowing the installation of applications via terminal commands akin to Linux’s “apt-get” command.

Already, Microsoft provides a limited way for Windows users to interact with Android apps through the Phone Screen feature in its Your Phone app that generally requires an app download on an Android phone (It’s preloaded on Samsung phones and surely will be on the Surface Duo). But the experience is bound by the limitations of an app and requires that the Android phone be nearby. While some of the Your Phone benefit comes from using an instance of the app that already has your data and preferences at the ready, much of that convenience is tied to a relevant cloud-based account. Having access to those Android apps as a persistent and integrated part of the Windows experience would make Windows 2-in-1s in particular far more versatile and useful, and a stronger competitor to both the iPad and forthcoming Macs able to run iPad apps.

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