Move over, Google: Microsoft's the new Android trailblazer

Every year ’round this time, we start thinking about what Google’s got in store for Android in the months ahead. And broad trends aside, the biggest questions tend to revolve around the year’s upcoming Android release.

Some Android versions are mostly about under-the-hood improvements, while others focus on bits of subtle but significant polish. And sometimes, we see massive foundational changes to what the operating system represents — the switch to on-screen navigation buttons in 2011’s Honeycomb and Ice Cream Sandwich; the introduction of the modern, card-centric Material Design interface in 2014’s Lollipop; and then the advent of gesture-driven navigation in 2018’s Pie (and, uh, again in last year’s Android 10 update).

It’s still too soon to know for sure what themes we’ll see come up with this year’s Android 11 offering, but I have a sneaking suspicion the most interesting and potentially transformative advancements for Android this year won’t actually be connected to that software at all — or to any of Google’s own efforts, for that matter.

Stay with me here, ’cause I swear I haven’t lost my mind: The most consequential changes to the way we use and think about Android in 2020 might come from…Microsoft.

Yes, Microsoft. What a weird, upside-down world we live in, I know. But when you stop and think about it, it actually makes an awful lot of sense.

After failing to serve the Android faithful for ages — first ignoring the platform entirely and then wildly misunderstanding its nature for a while — Microsoft started getting serious about our virtual stomping ground a few years back. It made almost shockingly good versions of its office apps for Android, created its own Android launcher to turn Microsoft into a focal point of the phone-using experience, and then little by little built out an entire Microsoft sub-platform that existed within Google’s virtual walls.

The company essentially created a Windows Phone 2.0, in other words, only this time doing it in a way that piggybacked off the world’s most widely used operating system instead of trying to go up against it. Just like Google, amusingly enough, Microsoft is now taking a post-OS era approach and focusing on ecosystem over operating system.

So when we heard last year that Microsoft was building its first self-made Android device, the dual-screened Microsoft Surface Duo, it was clear this wasn’t gonna be Yet Another Unremarkable Android Phone. Microsoft was up to something grander here — something intriguingly unusual and decidedly different.

To be sure, there’s still plenty we don’t know about the Duo and ample cause for skepticism. But with the release of a Duo-specific software development kit and loads of associated documentation this month, we’re getting some fresh clues about Microsoft’s true ambitions for the device — and its ultimate plan for pushing Android into some wild new territory Google itself has yet to explore. And if you ask me, this has the potential to be one of the most significant advancements Android’s seen in a good long while — the sort of thing that could have huge implications not only for the future of the platform but also for mobile technology in general.

Specifically, there are two main reasons I’m cautiously optimistic about what Microsoft’s about to do with Android — my two key takeaways from the company’s mountains of Duo-related materials.

First:

While lots of companies are coming out with foldables, Microsoft is coming out with a smarter twist on the concept — and coming up with a genuine reason for it to exist.

When we talk about foldable phones right now, two common themes come up: First, by and large, they’re innovation for the sake of innovation — a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t quite exist. Cool as they may seem, they just don’t add much of meaningful value into the day-to-day phone-using experience. And even in the rare situations where they may have some practical benefit in terms of portability, they’re laden with compromises that make them inadvisable for practically everyone.

Instead of following mindlessly onto that foldable bandwagon, as most manufacturers seem eager to do these days, Microsoft came up with a smarter setup: a phone that folds in half, with two separate screens that sit side by side. And sure, there’s a thin hinge between ’em — but when you see how the Duo’s designed to work, you realize that doesn’t really matter all that much. (And also, call me crazy, but that thin hinge seems way less distracting than the clunky seam on the screen of a foldable phone and the host of durability issues that come with it.)

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The most interesting advantage the Duo provides, y’see, isn’t being able to treat its dual displays as a single large screen (though you certainly can do that, in certain scenarios). It’s being able to treat them as separate but complementary parts of a phone-using experience — something that really seems like it could change the very nature of how we think about Android and mobile computing.

To wit: Microsoft’s software development kit details five core ways apps can tap into the Duo’s dual screens and take advantage of their potential. There’s technically a sixth — the basic “extended canvas,” where an app stretches across the two displays — but it’s the more advanced patterns that show off how Microsoft’s managing to evolve Android in a way that Google has not.

Take, for instance, the “master-detail” arrangement. There, apps split their content between a master pane, which contains some sort of list-like view, and a details pane, where extra information resides. Think of it like Outlook’s preview pane, transformed into a standard operating system element — and think of all the ways apps ranging from email clients to calendars, photo galleries, and even music players could take advantage of it.

Microsoft Duo, Android: Master DetailMicrosoft

Then there’s the “two page” view, in which apps can provide an open-book-like experience, complete with page turning. It’d evolve the way we experience reading-related apps, for sure, and it could also create some interesting possibilities for document- or note-oriented scenarios.

The “dual view” setup lets an app show similar sorts of content side by side — two documents, two lists, two images, or even two products on shopping sites — so you can easily compare and work across the two items without having to do any cramped screen splits or awkward back-and-forth switching.

Microsoft Duo, Android: Dual ViewMicrosoft

And finally, the “companion pane” view is designed to show complementary interface elements — tools, menus, or control panels that’d typically be hidden behind a button in a standard single-screen environment — right alongside your main work area.

Microsoft Duo, Android: Companion PaneMicrosoft

Beyond those possibilities, there’s also the plain and simple option of having two different apps exist on their own screens, side by side. And in that arrangement, if the apps support it, you can drag and drop content between the two programs — text, links, images, or even “rich objects” — instead of cutting and pasting.

See what’s happening here? Microsoft actually took a thoughtful approach to how an extended-screen setup should work and precisely what sort of real-world, instantly relatable value it should provide. Instead of taking a cool-looking new kind of technology and then trying to find a reason for it to exist, Microsoft came up with the reason — and then came up with the device to support it. With all the wild phone forms flying around right now, that’s something no other company has yet managed to do.

There’s another side to this story, though — one that’s critical to a phone like the Duo, or any other device with an unusual approach, to succeed. And based on this early look at Microsoft’s strategy, it sure looks like the company is setting itself up to nail it.

Microsoft is building in a smart fail-safe and making sure that apps without specific dual-screen support will still work well in its setup.

Regardless of how intriguing the Duo’s advanced use-cases are, this part is key. I mean, think about it: The Achilles’ heel of Microsoft’s entire strategy here is the fact that it requires Android app developers to actively optimize their apps in order for them to function in any of those aforementioned arrangements. You aren’t just gonna open up the Duo, pop open any ol’ app, and have it be magically ready to handle those sorts of next-level screen-spanning arrangements. And we all know how poky some Android developers can be at adopting new standards.

But here’s the saving grace: According to Microsoft’s development documentation, Android apps on the Duo will always default to opening on a single one of the device’s displays — thereby looking and acting just like they would on any regular Android device.

Microsoft Duo, Android: Default ViewsMicrosoft

There is no compatibility question, in other words, because the default setup is exactly the same as what you’d get on any other Android phone. So at the worst, you have a device that lets you focus on one app on a standalone 5.6″ screen while then having the ability to pull up any other app or process on a second 5.6″ screen. That could still be interesting, particularly if the hardware is compelling. And at the best, well, you’d have apps that can do all those other advanced possibilities we were just mulling over.

Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves: This is still just a concept. There are still tons of unanswered questions about the Duo, including its cost, the limitations surrounding its single-camera (only on the inside!) setup, and how exactly Microsoft will handle software updates.

But based on the concept, at least, it sure looks like this device has all the practical productivity benefits foldable phones are lacking — and without all the hardware-driven drawbacks those devices possess. With Android 10, Google created the basic framework for how apps could exist across multiple panels. Microsoft, meanwhile, seems to be the one taking that ball and running with it — coming up with a clever new concept and one-upping Google on its own terrain.

This is the sort of stuff that makes you sit up and say: “Oh! Right. Now I see why this could be useful instead of just novel” — and maybe, just maybe, the sort of stuff that ushers in a new era for the types of experiences Android can enable.

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Microsoft expands forced upgrade for 1809 users

Microsoft has expanded its forced upgrading of Windows 10 PCs running the 14-month old 1809 with the most recent refresh, 1909.

“We are starting the next phase in our controlled approach to automatically initiate a feature update for an increased number of devices running the October 2018 Update (Windows 10, version 1809) Home and Pro editions,” Microsoft said on Jan. 21 in its Windows release health dashboard.

Microsoft kicked off the forced upgrades last month, when on Dec. 5 it said it would “slowly start the phased process” of upgrading PCs running Windows 10 1809.

Windows 10 Home 1809 and Windows 10 Pro 1809, which were released Nov. 13, 2018, will drop off Microsoft’s support list on May 12. (The Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education versions of 1809 receive 30 months of support, not the 18 of Home and Pro, and so will be supported until May 11, 2021.)

The forced upgrades resulted from the changes Microsoft made to Windows 10 servicing in April 2019. Rather than deliver each feature upgrade to Windows 10 Home PCs and unmanaged Windows 10 Pro systems on the company’s timetable – since 2015, Microsoft had decided when each device was told to download and install a refresh – Microsoft inserted a “Download and install now” (DaIN) option into version 1903, then refitted 1803 and 1809 with it, too.

DaIN lets users choose when to migrate from one version to another. If one does not apply DaIN, the latest feature upgrade will not be automatically downloaded and installed. The result: for the first time, users of Windows 10 Home and unmanaged Windows 10 Pro were able to easily skip a feature upgrade. (Under earlier rules, these users would have been required to upgrade from 1809 to 1903 before later moving to 1903.)

But customers cannot run a Windows 10 version indefinitely. When the current feature upgrade nears its end of support – no later than around four months to go – Microsoft intervenes by downloading and installing the latest. That intervention is what Microsoft has just expanded.

Users let Microsoft skip upgrades for them

By overturning the upgrade process for Windows 10 Home and unmanaged Windows 10 Pro, Microsoft has also upended the adoption timeline of each refresh. Prior to last April’s servicing change, Microsoft upgraded the bulk of consumer and small business Windows 10 PCs near the beginning of a version’s cycle. But after the introduction of DaIN, it appears that the schedule has flipped, with significant numbers of users still running the previous year’s version within just a few months of its expiration date.

Put another way, a substantial number of users have decided to wait until near the end of a version’s support before receiving a replacement.

According to Windows app analytics vendor AdDuplex, 22% of the Windows 10 PCs tallied Tuesday were running 1809, down only slightly from October’s 25%. (AdDuplex did not publicly report on versions’ measurements in November and December.)

Compare 1809 – 22% still running the version when it had four months of support remaining — with the refresh a year earlier, Windows 10 1709, which launched Oct. 17, 2017 and for Home and Pro, was retired April 9, 2019. AdDuplex’s December 2018 report – that measurement also made four months before 1709 fell off support – said Windows 10 1709 accounted for only 6% of all versions, or about a quarter of 1809’s share at the same point in its lifecycle.

That difference signals the impact of Microsoft’s DaIN decision last year: A substantial portion of upgrades, which once were universally front-loaded, with the bulk occurring near the beginning of a version’s cycle, have shifted to the end of the lifecycle. That also suggests – and that’s all, since we have no data that says otherwise – that users of Windows 10 Home and unmanaged Windows 10 Pro are kicking back and letting Microsoft handle the upgrade (which, remember, the company does in the last few months of support). In turn, that hints that that same portion of users of Home and unmanaged Pro are thus skipping an upgrade, as Computerworld predicted last year. (Users who were force-fed 1809 in late 2018 didn’t bother with the next 1903 but will be given 1909 shortly.)

Opposition grows to Microsoft's make-Chrome-use-Bing plan for Office 365 customers

Resistance has mounted over the last several days to Microsoft’s decision to change the default search engine of Google’s Chrome to Bing on personal computers running Office 365 ProPlus.

Microsoft quietly announced the move Jan. 21 on its Microsoft 365 Roadmap page, then on Jan. 22 published support documents with additional information and a blog post that stated the company’s rationale.

Commentary on Microsoft’s blog, the support document and elsewhere — including an Office 365 website dedicated to user requests — was almost universally negative.

“I can’t believe you think this is an acceptable business practice,” asserted Rickey Roach in a comment appended to the Office 365 team’s blog post.

“This is … overreach,” opined Tom Arbuthnot on that same blog. Arbuthnot was identified as an MVP, a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional. “Microsoft might be doing this because they think it will give the user a better experience, but doing it by default without even asking the user or the organization is too much. I’m pretty sure Google won’t be too pleased with this either.” (Arbuthnot expanded on his criticism on his personal blog.)

It’s all about Microsoft Search

Microsoft’s scheme to switch Chrome from its designated search choice to Bing was part of the firm’s Microsoft Search strategy.

“By making Bing the default search engine, users in your organization with Google Chrome will be able to take advantage of Microsoft Search, including being able to access relevant workplace information directly from the browser address bar,” Microsoft contended in a Jan. 23 support document.

Microsoft Search, which the company unveiled in May 2019, was designed to make search in the enterprise — in Microsoft-made and third-party applications — more productive. Rather than return just website links, Microsoft Search would find information from files and those applications’ content, bringing to the forefront not only matches and near matches but also what the algorithms believed the user really was after. In Edge, the service is dubbed “Microsoft Search in Bing.”

Microsoft Search is a key component of Microsoft 365, the über subscription that bundles Office 365, Windows 10 and management tools, and appears to be a major initiative. (One way to gauge the latter: the comprehensive Microsoft Search in Bing adoption kit, a cache of email, poster and evaluation templates companies can use to educate workers on the service and convince them to try it.)

Apparently, Microsoft was so set on spreading the new search service that it decided to force it on those enterprise users — the ones running Office 365, anyway — who have Chrome as their default browser. Microsoft made this decision even though it had to know that the plot would receive serious pushback and could easily guess the forms of that criticism.

Browser hijacking?

Not surprisingly, much of the blowback equated the unsolicited search change to the practices of malware makers and scammers.

“Force-changing the settings on a user for arbitrary reasons circles the drain of ‘unlawful,’ and is effectively browser hijacking,” said someone labeled only as camxct on GitHub, where comments attached to support documents appeared.

“Browser hijacking like in the 90s. Are you nuts?” asked kgbvax, perhaps not rhetorically.

The phrase “browser hijacking” — and others, including PUP, for “potentially unwanted program” — harked back years to a time when that practice was common. Malicious actors would infect a system with malware that changed a browser’s settings — typically its default search engine and/or home page — to drive traffic to specific sites where they could collect advertising revenue.

Google spent significant time and effort in blocking hijackers from taking over Chrome and in barring unofficial add-ons — those not hosted in the Chrome Web Store, more or less — from installing, all part of a years-long process to lock down the browser.

Now, Microsoft is attempting to do to Chrome just what Google has tried to stop.

“Chrome is not your browser, leave it alone!” said someone identified only as Andrew on the User Voice site Microsoft runs to solicit feedback and requests for Office. “This is adware at best! I am absolutely flabbergasted by this stunt!”

(As of 2 p.m. ET Jan. 28, that item on User Voice had been upvoted more than 900 times and had collected more than 180 comments.)

Others swore revenge. “This really makes me regret pushing Office 365 so hard where I work. You guys are putting egg on my face,” wrote Daniel Prince on the User Voice site. “I’m in charge of 90,000 Windows and Mac devices. Next week, we are blocking Bing.com at the firewall level. Hope this little stunt you pulled was worth it.”

Software should obtain your consent, says Microsoft

Microsoft’s add-on has already appeared on Google’s Chrome Web Store, hinting that Google at least implicitly approved of the extension. Dubbed Microsoft Search in Bing quick access, it was updated as recently as today.

A pair of users objected to the extension in the Store, too. “Unwanted plugin, should not be allowed to install without consent,” argued Michael Studte. “Mess with Chrome Edge all you want, but don’t touch non-Microsoft browsers!”

The thing is, Microsoft’s own policies have — or still do; it’s unclear — forbid changing a browser’s default search engine without authorization.

“All extensions for Microsoft Edge must be deployed from the Microsoft Store,” stated the Microsoft browser extension policy for the old-school Edge. “The installation must be initiated and completed by the user, using only the user experience provided by Microsoft Edge and the Microsoft Store” (emphasis added).

Elsewhere, Microsoft’s own definition of unwanted software included phrasing that may match how it plans to distribute the Chrome extension. In the support document “How Microsoft identifies malware and potentially unwanted applications,” under “Unwanted software,” Microsoft said, “Software should obtain your consent before installing.” Microsoft has said nothing thus far about user consent when it rolls out the next update to Office 365 ProPlus.

Neither Google or Mozilla replied to requests for comment on Microsoft’s plan to issue add-ons for Chrome and Firefox in new installations of Office 365 ProPlus and the next update to ProPlus.