Even after the pre-event leaks, the Windows 11 unveil event last week managed to drop in a surprise… the ability to run Android apps on Windows 11 out of the box and the company’s plans to bring Amazon’s Android app store to its newest operating system.
The specifics are still not very clear, and the first preview build does not support this upcoming feature, but let’s look at what do we know, and what have we learnt.
The tech specifics
At the heart of this new strategy will be a new Windows Subsystem for Android, which will work similar to the existing Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) that is a part of Windows 10 already. This subsystem will essentially be a bridge between the app models of the two operating systems.
The virtual environment will essentially be compatible with Android Open Source Project (AOSP), the open-source project maintained by Google. While most smartphones ship with standard ‘Android’ and pack in proprietary Google Mobile Services, AOSP has been forked as Fire OS, LineageOS, etc. by OEMs and open-source communities.
On Intel-powered devices, the experience will be powered by Intel Bridge Technology which is a runtime post-compiler that will allow these apps to run natively on x86-based devices.
Microsoft has clarified that the Intel Bridge Technology won’t be needed on AMD or Arm-based devices to get Android apps to run on Windows 11 devices. Since Android apps are compiled for Arm, so bridge technology might not be needed, however, it is not yet clear how would this work on AMD-based devices.
Android on Windows
As mind-boggling as the announcement was, this is not the first time that Microsoft has attempted to allow Android apps on Windows.
Back in 2015, faced with the app gap conundrum on the Microsoft Store (then Windows Store), especially for Windows 10 Mobile, Microsoft started working on bridges for developers to adapt their apps on Android, iOS, Web, and Win32 to work on Windows 10.
Project Astoria, the codename for the Android/Windows bridge (the iOS/Windows one was codenamed Project Islandwood), enabled developers to bring their Android apps to Windows 10 using their existing code and skills. It allowed developers to bring their apps to Windows 10 Mobile devices as UWP apps by using extensions to the Android SDK and popular Android IDEs.
My sources at the time confirmed that Project Astoria actually worked quite well. Most apps required few code changes or none at all. However, the focus on Universal Windows Platform (UWP) and the in-the-works abandoning of the mobile operating system led to a quick cancellation of the project.
Then there’s Bluestacks, a third-party Android emulator available for both Mac and PC. It boots Android in a virtual machine on your Windows PC and allows access to the entire catalog of apps on the Google Play Store. It’s quite popular with Android gamers looking for a PC-like gaming experience.
On Windows 10, long after Windows 10 Mobile had died, Microsoft devised a new strategy to bridge a smartphone with one’s PC—using the Your Phone app. Instead of picking up the phone to text someone or check an incoming notification, one could do it via their PC. However, on certain Samsung Galaxy smartphones, one can also use the installed apps on their PC. Essentially, you can ‘run’ any app installed on your Android smartphone.
Why do you need it?
There are several reasons to run Android apps on Windows, apart from developers looking to test their apps as they go along.
Several popular mobile-first apps don’t have native Windows or fully featured Web versions. Even major apps like Instagram offer limited functionality on the Web or on their Windows app. If your preferred phone apps are available on your PC, it makes your workflow smoother since you don’t have to fumble between the two devices.
Then there are apps that require extensive interaction and could benefit from a keyboard and a mouse. And of course, the mobile gamers would like playing their favorite Android games on the PC with the whole peripheral thingamajigs and also better manage their streaming experience.
Amazon Appstore on Windows 11
The mobile app selection on the Microsoft Store on Windows 11 is powered by the company’s neighbors in Seattle, Amazon. The Amazon Appstore will allow Windows 11 users to access Android apps within the Microsoft Store with the familiar search, browsing, and discovery experience.
At the moment, Amazon Appstore is available on the company’s line-up of Fire devices. These are popular devices, yes, but the number of apps as well as the install base cannot match Google Play Store, the de-facto way of downloading Android apps on all smartphones outside of China.
However, the partnership could revitalize Amazon Appstore offering the developers an opportunity to market their apps to a potential audience of millions of Windows 11 users. I use the word ‘opportunity’ and ‘potential’ instead of making a definite statement because the Microsoft Store on Windows 10—even with its wide install base—didn’t really shine.
At this moment, we're not sure when Android apps will start showing up in the revamped Microsoft Store. The official word is ‘later this year’. Microsoft has clarified that not every Android app in the Amazon Appstore will run on Windows 11.
Windows 11 will also allow sideloading of Android apps, which is handy but riddled with problems. A lot of Android developers do not offer APK files for sideloading, and they are mostly available via unofficial, shady directories. Apart from the legal issues of something like that, there's also concerns around malware since these aggregators don't cover all bases like a Google would. Incidentally, Google will now require that new apps on the Play Store are published using the Android App Bundle. Google's switch from APKs to App Bundles may mean that there will be fewer apps available to run on Windows 11.
It is not yet clear if Microsoft will allow the installation of third-party app stores like Android does. There is a potential of Samsung bundling its Galaxy Store on its Windows 11 laptops or alternative app stores like Indus App Bazaar, an Android app store built for emerging markets like India, be made available.
Let's see if this perplexing highlight of Windows 11 reaps any rewards for Microsoft.