Apr 5, 2017 3:00 AM

Microsoft’s new love for Android is no betrayal

Windows Mobile fans have cried foul, but the truth is that Microsoft has brought that desirable Microsoft experience to the mobile platform most people prefer

Derek Walter

The news that Microsoft will sell Samsung’s Galaxy S8 in its U.S. stores came as a surprise to many. Shouldn’t Microsoft be concentrating on keeping its Windows 10 Mobile platform going, while we wait for the (perhaps) mythical Surface Phone? It’s a move that’s made many Windows Mobile fans unhappy.

But pull back the curtains a little, and it turns out that Microsoft has slowly been making inroads on the Android ecosystem, co-opting Google’s platform and absorbing it into its overall enterprise software strategy. Starting with Office 365, Microsoft has been slowly bending Android to its own image, even providing its own lock screen and launchers to give it that distinctly Microsoft feel.

Making a Microsoft Android

It’s an approach I’ve become very familiar with over the last year, when I stopped using one of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile-based Lumia smartphones and started carrying an Android-based Samsung Galaxy Note 5. What began as an experiment became my everyday smartphone, and I later upgraded to the newer Galaxy S7 Edge. It turned out that everything I could do with my Lumia’s Windows Mobile I could do on my Galaxy’s Android—and quite a bit more, besides.

Much of that is down to Microsoft’s mobile Office 365 apps. The mobile versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint have very similar capabilities across Windows Mobile, iOS, and Android. With your files stored on OneDrive, you also have access to the data you want wherever you are. In my case, that can even be on an underground train, thanks to Wi-Fi’s availability in London’s Tube.

Another Microsoft product, SwiftKey, makes an excellent swipeable keyboard replacement for both Google’s and Samsung’s Android onscreen keyboards. (Though for more than basic editing and quick replies, I’ve invested in a decent lightweight Bluetooth keyboard that works with all my mobile devices.)

Making an Android smartphone like the Samsung S8 feel more “Microsofty” isn’t hard. Installing the Next lock screen and the Arrow launcher goes a long way to giving it a Windows feel while keeping it an Android device. Thanks to integration with key Microsoft services, including OneDrive and Wunderlist, it's easy to ignore Google services. With Skype, Cortana, and Outlook installed, your only point of contact with Google is the Play Store—and Microsoft offers a separate app to help find and download its apps.

The secret sauce is Office 365

The key to Microsoft’s success on Android (and on iOS) has been a series of strategic acquisitions. Its mobile version of Outlook is one of the best cross-platform email clients—not because it inherits features from the desktop Outlook but because it’s the direct descendant of the Accompli email client and the Sunrise calendar. Microsoft bought both tools, and their development teams are now part of the Office group. If you’ve used Accompli, you’ll find mobile Outlook very familiar. Although it has a different emphasis from desktop Outlook, the latest Office Insider builds of Outlook 2016 are bringing features from the mobile client to your PC—including its focus view, which displays emails from regular correspondents only.

The decision to extend Office 365 and many of its components to Android and iOS can’t have been easy for Microsoft; it would have seemed like giving up on Windows Mobile. But it’s also one of its most successful changes, bringing new talent and perspective to Microsoft, and giving Office a greatly expanded reach. With OneDrive, Skype, Flow, OneNote, and Outlook in every app store, it’s surprisingly easy to use Microsoft tools rather than the device’s defaults. The only item missing from Microsoft’s Android tools is an SMS application, and that can’t be far away. It’s already in the Windows 10 Mobile version of Skype.

Adding enterprise glue to Android with EMS

Buying an Android smartphone in a Microsoft Store and having it customized with Office is an easy on-ramp for the consumer, but what about for business users?

It turns out that switching your enterprise users from Windows Mobile to Android isn’t painful, either. If you use System Center or Microsoft’s cloud-hosted Enterprise Mobility + Security (EMS) suite, you have access to all the tools you need to manage Android devices. EMS’s Intune mobile device management service comes with a complete set of Android controls, including the ability to push apps to devices and to control them from a central dashboard—whether for a fully managed fleet of corporate devices or a user’s device as part of a BYOD policy. There’s even a corporate app store for Android that will distribute your apps to managed devices. Of course, this is all true even if you use a mobile management service from another provider like MobileIron or VMware.

But you can get Microsoft’s special sauce with EMS if you work with Office 365. EMS helps secure your documents on any mobile platform by using Azure Rights Management to control access. With Azure RM, you can block employees from opening and reading files unless they comply with your choice of security settings, which include everything from running managed apps to whether a user has logged in via multifactor authentication. An Azure RM SDK gives your apps an extra layer of security, ensuring those who are logged in can read files.

Control is important on enterprise devices, and choosing EMS to manage your fleet of devices makes a lot of sense. Locking down files lets users install their choice of apps while making sure business information doesn’t leak to the outside world. By controlling only a limited subset of apps, you avoid the old BlackBerry problem of giving IT admins too much control over a personal device; it's much more likely that those users will opt for a managed device rather than going outside your sphere of control and increasing the risk of data loss as a side effect.

Is Microsoft’s Android support a stopgap or the future?

Microsoft has missed the boat on making Windows 10 Mobile the default enterprise smartphone. But while Microsoft retrenches and rethinks its device strategy, it makes sense for Microsoft to sell non-Windows devices running its software. With a suite of Office 365 apps and an enterprise management platform offering, promoting Android is the logical step—and a flagship device like Samsung’s Galaxy S8 is an attractive entry point.

We’ll know if Android is a permanent fixture in Microsoft stores if the Galaxy S8 is joined by midrange and budget devices, along with fleet purchase plans. (iPhones are a less likely proposition because Apple lets no provider, not even the carriers, customize the default app mix.) Until then, it’ll let Microsoft keep its foot in the door of the mobile market, until its own hardware comes along again.