Microsoft (MSFT 1.99%) is no stranger to Android apps. Alphabet's (GOOG 1.56%) (GOOGL 1.61%) Android app store, Google Play, is brimming with software from the Redmond tech giant, including mobile versions of Word, PowerPoint, and Excel, along with Outlook, Bing, and SmartGlass.
But Microsoft's latest Android app is different from the others. Instead of offering Android users a way to access its many services from their devices, it encourages them to make the switch to its own mobile platform, Windows Phone. Microsoft clearly isn't giving up on mobile -- but it's unlikely this app will have much of an effect.
Microsoft's app problem
There are a variety of reasons why an individual consumer might select an Android-powered phone over a Windows Phone, but the most significant comes down to apps: Microsoft's Windows Phone platform just doesn't have as many as Alphabet's Android. As of the end of September, Microsoft's app store had 669,000, while Google Play sports over 1.6 million.
Microsoft's new Android app, AppComparison, attempts to downplay the issue. It scans an Android device looking for the other apps installed, then returns a list highlighting the ones available for Windows Phone. For those that have no equivalent, Microsoft offers up some alternatives (HERE Maps instead of Google Maps, for example).
Windows Phone is nearly irrelevant
In theory, AppComparison could entice some Android handset owners to make the jump to Windows Phone. If they discover that many of their favorite apps are available on Microsoft's platform, they may be less concerned about purchasing a Lumia.
But numbers alone don't tell the whole story, and while some apps may be similar, they won't be the same. Those wed to Google's online ecosystem could have a difficult time, as most Google apps (Google Maps, Gmail, and Google Photos, just to name a few) are missing from Microsoft's app store. And the apps that are there are often of lesser quality. Mobile developers typically update their Android and iOS apps regularly, including new features and making improvements. Windows Phone apps, however, are generally updated less frequently, and sometimes not all. Waze, for example, released a Windows Phone app in the past, and it's still available to download, but the GPS service has stopped supporting the Windows platform.
Microsoft's share of the smartphone market has tumbled in recent quarters. In the third quarter, it powered just 1.7% of the smartphones sold globally according to Strategy Analytics. With such modest market share, there's little reason for developers to bother with Microsoft's platform.
AppComparison might also have the opposite of its intended affect. If a would-be Lumia buyer uses it and discovers they'd have to give up many of their most commonly used and cherished apps, they may be less likely to switch.
Betting on the Xbox and PC to save Windows Phone
In April, Microsoft announced a solution for its app problem: Project Astoria, a toolkit that would've allowed developers to easily port Android apps to Windows. But last month, The Verge reported that Microsoft had pulled back on the initiative, and that its fate remained uncertain.
At Microsoft's shareholder meeting last week, CEO Satya Nadella was asked about Windows Phone's lack of apps. Nadella answered that the company planned to entice developers through the promise of Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps. UWP apps can run across all Windows 10-powered devices -- not just smartphones, but also Windows 10 PCs and Microsoft's video game console, the Xbox One. That dramatic increase in the size of the market could attract greater developer interest. But not everyone is convinced: former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told Bloomberg it wouldn't work, and that the company should continue pushing Project Astoria.
Regardless, the lack of apps remains a real problem for Microsoft's smartphones. AppComparison is an interesting effort, but I can't imagine it will pull too many Android fans to Windows Phone.