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Android's scariest nightmare: resurgently sexy Microsoft

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Open...and Shut Microsoft, lost in the mobile woods for so long, may have finally found a way back.

Despite some problems, Microsoft seems to be on the right track with Windows 8 for tablets, not to mention the long-awaited Mango release for smartphones. But Microsoft's potential resurgence may have as much to do with Google's Android problems as it does Microsoft's improved sense of style.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Microsoft is the cause of some of those Android problems.

First, let's drink a little Microsoft Kool-Aid. As bad as Microsoft's mobile efforts have been, Metro (Windows 8) and Mango (Windows Phone 7.5) look pretty darn good. Microsoft was right to beat its chest a bit at its recent Build conference.

In turn, the press has reacted favorably, giving Microsoft a second – 315th? – chance. I've spent time using Windows 8 on the Samsung tablets handed out at Build, and it's very slick.

Well, that is, until you inadvertently allow the non-Metro, retro Windows UI to rear its ugly head "like a mud-coated crocodile lying in wait at the water’s edge as the thirsty baby gazelle draws closer," to use Andy Ihnatko's words.

But maybe, just maybe, Microsoft will come to understand that we don't want to see the traditional Windows interface. Ever. Again.

But we probably do want to see Metro and Mango, and likely will, particularly Metro. Why? Because they're high quality (see above), but also because the non-Apple camp increasingly needs a better alternative to iOS than vanilla Android.

I've argued that forking Android is a good way for such device manufacturers to differentiate themselves, as Amazon is doing with its new Kindle. Unfortunately, though, many lack the software skills to be able to pull it off. For such companies, Microsoft may be a good alternative.

No, this doesn't ultimately solve device manufacturers' differentiation problem, but nothing short of developing their own OS (or forking Android, which essentially amounts to the same thing) will do that.

Microsoft, of course, is trying to make Android an unappealing alternative to cozying up to the Redmond beast. The company recently closed yet another Linux-is-theft patent licensing agreement, this time with Casio, to scare away would-be Linux adopters. And it has taken particular aim at Linux-based Android with a spate of Android-related suits.

Given that much of the interest in Android has been because of its low-cost nature, anything that Microsoft can do to raise the perceived or actual cost of Android may well shuttle Windows buyers into its hands.

All of which may help to net Microsoft roughly 10 per cent of the growing tablet market by 2015, according to new research from Gartner. And though the jury is still out in smartphones, new NPD research has 44 per cent of those surveyed interested in buying a Windows Phone 7 device. Given that Microsoft started at approximately minus-100 per cent of people interested in its mobile wares, that's a pretty significant number.

And, frankly, it's mostly down to Microsoft (finally) building an OS and attendant UI worthy of a mobile device.

Android's missteps on tablets have surely helped, and Microsoft's aggressive patent policy has likely helped, too. But the real reason Microsoft actually has a chance is that it's creating products worth considering. That's a nice change, and one that will likely see Apple's dominance erode further, even as Google steps up its game to take on a new challenger.

In the process, consumers should see more, and better, choice in mobile. It's about time. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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