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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 [No Longer Available] – 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.
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.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the sister projects to Astoria and Islandwood; Centennial and Westminster.
Centennial [No Longer Available] 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.
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.
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). 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.
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.
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? While you can for example emulate WhatsApp on Windows, 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.
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.
— Matthew Hughes (@matthewhughes) August 17, 2015
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.