Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) is looking more and more like Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) under the leadership of Satya Nadella. Google is well-known for encouraging its employees to work on side projects that "they think will most benefit Google." Now, Microsoft is taking the wraps off of several new projects that came out of Microsoft Garage -- it's own side-project program.
Most notably, Microsoft is highlighting three new apps its employees developed for Android. Right now, these apps are still in the "experimental" phase, but several projects have made their way out of the Garage, such as Snipp3t for iOS.
Microsoft's core business revolves around selling its own OSes, so why is it developing apps for competing operating systems?
Stuck in the middle
Microsoft's business falls somewhere in the middle of the open system of Google and the closed system of Apple. It makes complete sense for Google to make apps for platforms outside of Android. Its business relies on people using its service, collecting data, and selling ads. The more users it has, the better, no matter what OS they use. Conversely, Apple's business is centered on selling hardware. Therefore, it makes sense for Apple to keep its apps on iOS and OS X only.
Microsoft is stuck in the middle ground. While its core business revolves around selling its own operating system, a weak PC market and low adoption rate of its mobile OS have put Microsoft in a situation where it must experiment outside of Windows. That includes funneling users to other Microsoft products, like Bing or Office 365. Indeed, Microsoft is starting to look a lot more like Google than Apple these days.
Microsoft still has a hardware business, however, and it's tied closely to a struggling PC market. Under Steve Ballmer, that meant Microsoft held back its best software products for its own platforms. Under new CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft is opening up and going after users similar to Google's approach -- by moving cross-platform. That's what it did when it opened Office to iOS and Android earlier this year.
But the new experimental apps from Garage are a bit different than Office. Microsoft knew people loved Office, and there was an established market of competing products on tablets. Nadella saw the opportunity slipping away and went after it by launching Office for iPad. With the experimental apps, Microsoft doesn't know if they'll be hits or not. Launching them on Android -- which is used by the majority of smartphone owners -- allows Microsoft to test new features instead of forcing them on its users by incorporating them into Windows Phone automatically.
Microsoft Garage projects featured on its website include Next Lock Screen -- which lets you do things including see your calendar or missed calls or connect to a conference call without unlocking your phone -- and Torque, which lets you " lift your arm, twist your wrist, and talk to Bing."
Don't make the same mistake twice
Windows 8 was a pretty big failure. Two years after launching, it still has a market share around half of the 13-year-old Windows XP. It's lagging well behind the market share of its predecessor, Windows 7, at this point in its life.
Microsoft's biggest mistake with Windows 8 was that it failed to pay attention to what users like and what they don't. Windows 8 was a large departure from version 7, designed for touchscreens with an overhauled user interface. People wanted their old Windows back, and most users refused to upgrade -- hence the low market share.
Microsoft doesn't want to make a similar mistake with Windows Phone. Microsoft is using the Garage apps to test user behavior, find out what they like and what they don't like, and feed those data back into its products. Some apps have the added benefit of funneling users into its consumer-facing products like Bing (in fact, that's one of the new apps' only functions), which will provide even more data for Microsoft to learn what people are searching for on mobile devices (specifically smart watches), which it can use to make new apps.
A new culture at Microsoft
Under Nadella, Microsoft is becoming more experimental and creative, a la Google. Not all of Google's experimental projects succeed, but the company notes it always gains valuable insight from every experiment. Microsoft's new policy of opening experimental projects to new users across multiple platforms should give it valuable insights as well -- whether they succeed or fail.
Microsoft is more interested in public input than it ever was under Ballmer or Bill Gates. That means it will do things like open up Windows 10 to early testers to gather feedback and offer experimental apps across platforms. The more data and feedback Microsoft has, the better it can make its products. Offering apps across platforms is key to getting as much feedback as possible.