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Microsoft has an app problem.

It wasn’t always like that. Microsoft has always had the biggest operating system (OS). About ten years ago, it also had the biggest mobile computing platform. They didn’t need to court developers. There simply wasn’t much by way of alternatives. To be a developer was, essentially, to work within the Windows ecosystem.

But then their mobile fortunes started to fade. Now they’re the third most popular mobile OS, with the moribund BlackBerry not trailing too far behind. Windows likewise is being usurped on the desktop by Apple and Google’s Chrome OS.

This has resulted in developers – a notoriously fickle species – turning their attentions elsewhere. Microsoft has lost its captive developer audience.

It’s a trend that’s remarkably hard to reverse, but Microsoft thinks they’ve got it cracked with Project Islandwood and Project Astoria – two toolkits that make it easy to port Android and iOS apps to Windows; and thanks to the Universal Windows Platform, simultaneously to mobile and desktop devices. A version of Astoria recently leaked, and it’s already causing waves.

Project Astoria and Islandwood Explained

Microsoft is incredibly eager to bridge the app gap. But they’re looking for a specific kind of app. They want applications that are beautiful, and touch focused, as Microsoft is incredibly invested in the touchscreen. For Redmond, it’s the next big paradigm of human computer interaction. But the problem is, the developers who swim in Microsoft’s ecosystem have scant experience in building touch-based apps.

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Believe it or not, the challenges associated with developing touch-focused applications are more than technical. They’re human. They’re about building beautiful, touch-oriented designs. This is something incredibly hard, and has taken Microsoft a long time to figure out.

Which is precisely why Microsoft is so excited about Astoria and Islandwood, since it allows them to immediately port existing Android and iOS apps to Windows 10, without having to wait for the skills of their developer community to mature.

Astoria is the Android toolkit. By all accounts, it’s rather simple to use. Preparing an Android app for Windows 10 can be as easy as adding a single line of code. Microsoft has also included an interoperability library that allows the app to work with existing Microsoft services.

Islandwood is a bit more complex. It’s effectively an entirely new suite of development tools, libraries, and toolchains that allows developers to build Windows 10 apps with Objective-C, and export existing Xcode projects into Visual Studio. Right now, it’s exclusively Objective-C, but Microsoft is working on a hotly-anticipated Swift compiler How Does Apple's New Programming Language Affect Me? How Does Apple's New Programming Language Affect Me? From the get-go, developers knew Apple's new Swift was going to be big. But why should you care? Read More .

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the sister projects to Astoria and Islandwood; Centennial and Westminster.

Centennial is meant to make older Windows apps (particularly those built with Win32, COM and, older .Net apps) work with the new Universal Windows Platform (UWP) standard. It doesn’t do anything to change the code, or require that programs be recompiled. Rather, it repackages existing binaries into a format that works with UWP.

Given the huge number of existing Windows applications that fall out of the scope of UWP, this feels like a no-brainer.

Westminster is rather interesting too, as it allows developers to easily transform existing web applications into native Windows Store applications.

This includes Windows 10 Mobile applications, which will effectively be running the same code as desktop variants of Windows, albeit with a few tweaks.

The Leak

Despite Windows 10 having already launched, and the incredible fanfare that subsequently followed, Microsoft has been rather low-key about their compatibility-oriented developer tools. The only real-world example we’ve seen so far was Candy Crush Saga, which was ported from iOS using Islandwood.

The tools themselves are, for the largest part, in a closed beta. Although, as we’ve seen time and again, it’s all too easy for a closed beta to become open without the permission of the developers in question.

Project Astoria was recently leaked. Not long after, some enterprising coders released an application that allows the sideloading of Android APKs to Windows 10 Mobile devices, simply by dragging and dropping.

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Astoria was almost certainly obtained through illegal means. As a result, we’ve decided not to test it for this article. Like WindowsCentral, we’re not too keen on advocating for downloading stolen code. Plus, Astoria is still nowhere near complete. It’s hasn’t been released for a reason.

However, should you decide to yourself, it’s simply a matter of installing the Windows Insider app on your (compatible) Windows 8.1 phone and installing the Windows 10 Mobile pre-release. Then you need to acquire the converter, and drag and drop an APK into it (here’s how to download APKs How to Download an APK from Google Play to Bypass Restrictions How to Download an APK from Google Play to Bypass Restrictions Need to get your hands on the installable APK file for an app from Google Play? We got you covered. Read More ). It’s as easy as that.

What Are Its Limitations

Microsoft isn’t the first company to court Android developers. BlackBerry, ever since the woefully unsuccessful Playbook, has allowed the painless conversion of Android apps You Got Your Android In My Blackberry - How To Run Android Apps On Blackberry OS 10 You Got Your Android In My Blackberry - How To Run Android Apps On Blackberry OS 10 Before you side load your Blackberry device with your favorite Android app, there are a few things you need to know. Read More .

But Astoria has some pretty major limitations, much like it was on BlackBerry 10. Google Play Services don’t work with it, and converted apps aren’t able to interact with Windows Services as native apps can.

windows10-smartphones

And for some reason, SnapChat doesn’t properly work with it. Astoria might be able to port Android apps, but don’t expect them to have the same level of quality you’d expect from a native app.

Why Is this Cool?

Did you ever wonder how you could run Android apps on your Windows desktop How to Emulate Android and Run Android Apps on Your PC How to Emulate Android and Run Android Apps on Your PC It's actually pretty easy to get Android apps running on your desktop or laptop! Here, we step you through the best methods. Read More ? While you can for example emulate WhatsApp on Windows How to Use WhatsApp on Your PC and Sync With Your Phone How to Use WhatsApp on Your PC and Sync With Your Phone Here is the best way to use Whatsapp on your desktop and have it sync with Whatsapp on your Android phone or tablet. Read More , similar solutions for iOS are lacking. Or maybe you are one of very few enthusiastic Windows Phone users craving for more apps.

Personally, I recently ditched my Huawei Android phone for a Lumia 640XL. I love it. I love the consistent user experience, and the greatly improved email clients. I love the fact that it’s fast, and I even love Groove (formerly known as Xbox Music). But there are still some things missing.

Some of my favorite apps, like last-minute travel app Hotel Tonight Hotel Tonight: Find the Best Last Minute Deals on Hotels [iOS] Hotel Tonight: Find the Best Last Minute Deals on Hotels [iOS] Read More , and ridesharing favorite Uber What Is Uber and Why Is It Threatening Traditional Taxi Services? What Is Uber and Why Is It Threatening Traditional Taxi Services? Uber has landed, and it's fundamentally changing inner-city transit. And some might say, not entirely for the better. Read More  are there, but a lot aren’t. Essentials like LoungeBuddy and Hailo.

Astoria definitively shows developers that they can port their Android apps to Windows 10 Mobile with a minimum of effort. Even more impressively, it demonstrates the ease in which a mobile application can be ported to the desktop. As Candy Crush Saga has shown, this doesn’t have to be an awkward, frustrating affair, as it so often is with emulated mobile apps. Rather, it can be graceful, and smooth, and intuitive.

Let’s be honest. There have been times when we’ve wanted to use a mobile app on our computer. Perhaps you’ve needed to hail an Uber, or find the cheapest rates on Hotel Tonight, or perhaps you just wanted to use the mobile version of Facebook Messenger (which some allege is better than the browser version). This makes all that (and more) possible.

Perhaps this will result in a greater variety of apps available, and feature-parity for existing applications.

But that’s not going to happen unless you, the readers lobby your favorite developers. It’s easy enough. Just tweet them, or email them. If you’re really desperate, get on the phone and ask them why they’re ignoring perhaps the most underserved and potentially lucrative smartphone platform out there.

I did. What’s stopping you?

Or perhaps I’m being a tad optimistic. What do you think? Will Astoria and Islandwood result in Windows 10 finally fixing its app problem? Or is Microsoft doomed to forever have a third-rate app store? Whatever you think, let me know in the comments below and we’ll chat.

Photo Credits: United Nations of smartphone operating systems by Jon Fingas, Microsoft Lumia 640XL by Maurizio Pesce

  1. 2933
    February 18, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    rfertre

  2. Bashana
    February 4, 2016 at 1:45 pm

    But my problem is how to install android apps (Apks) on win 10?

  3. Jon Green
    August 20, 2015 at 12:43 pm

    Microsoft have the right idea, but they're going in the wrong direction. What the mobile community's been begging for - *gagging*, in fact - for years and years, is a single development platform. With its cross-target Windows 10, Microsoft has the potential to become that. Develop your Win10 app first, then use anti-Islandwood and anti-Astoria to produce iOS and Android (even - whisper it - OS X) versions.

    Yes, this sounds counter-productive. It isn't. It makes Windows the _default_ development platform, and all others into ports from Windows. Every app comes out on Windows first. When it's thoroughly beta-tested, reviewed and liked, it goes to other platforms.

    I promise you: if it's done well, and it's easy and enjoyable to use, mobile developers will migrate to Windows in their hordes - and even love Microsoft...perhaps for their first time ever.

    • Matthew Hughes
      August 30, 2015 at 1:17 pm

      I actually really like that. I'm a developer. I think the .Net framework is amazing. I'd love to write iOS or Android apps in F#.

      I think what you're on about is unlikely to ever happen, but I hope it does.

  4. Jeff Schallenberg
    August 20, 2015 at 10:16 am

    There are only a few Android apps that I need while I'm on my Windows PC, including the Cozi calendar widget and the Allplay players that link my Allplay speakers together.

    For those few apps, an Android emulator running in a VirtualBox is quite sufficient. No need for Microsoft to have my preferred Android apps ported over to Windows.

    • Akshay Zade
      August 20, 2015 at 2:03 pm

      The projects mentioned above are mainly for Windows Phones. That is important since Phones can't run Virtualbox.

    • Matthew Hughes
      August 30, 2015 at 1:18 pm

      Akshay is right. But I think you can run QEMU on Android.

  5. Yodi Collins
    August 19, 2015 at 11:11 pm

    The only app I use on Android that I don't on Windows is the Amazon Music app, which isn't much of an issue since my Amazon account is web-accessible and my Windows phone has a functioning browser. If anything, I employ the multitude of Android apps to make the user experience with my Android tablet more like what I experience with my Windows Phone. I feel like this article comes from the wrong place: Android and iOS are designed to accommodate different breeds of users from mainstream Windows desktop, laptop and Phone users. Consequently, I feel this Project Astoria business is destined to fall flat. After all this time and with all the options available to us, it should be obvious that users who continue to use Microsoft products and services primarily are doing so because we want to.

  6. Gary Clarke Snr
    August 19, 2015 at 7:55 pm

    I'm with you on this I think all the apps from everyone should be available to everyone regardless of platform,Microsoft are taking this the right way to achieve this and I hope android and apply user's are feeling the same way to achieve the ultimate universal apps store for everyone.

    • Matthew Hughes
      August 30, 2015 at 1:23 pm

      Yeah. To be fair, we already have a universal platform for Windows, iOS and Android: It's called HTML5.

      • Mihir Patkar
        August 30, 2015 at 2:06 pm

        #trololololol

    • Matthew Hughes
      August 30, 2015 at 2:07 pm

      I'm not trolling. Since day one, Apple has been able to natively treat HTML5 apps as iOS apps. So has Android, and Windows Phone. There are even cross-platform developing platforms (like Corona and Phone Gap) that are based around HTML5.

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