Could This New Technology Make Microsoft a Player in Mobile?

Editor's Note: This article has been corrected to change mentions of Windows Mobile to Windows Phone, as well as correcting a section that implied AMD was in the smartphone space. The Fool regrets the error.

In the mobile operating system world at the moment, there's Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL) iOS, Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG) Android, and very far in the distance, everything else. This includes Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT) Windows Phone, an offshoot of its classic OS that the software maker hopes will make it a player in the tablet and smartphone space. Given its near-invisible market share in mobile, that ambition looked laughable... until now, thanks to a funky piece of software new to the market.

Appy day
The new program is called App Player. It's put out by the privately held BlueStacks, and as its name suggests it translates Android apps into code that PCs/Windows devices can run. A Mac version of App Player hit the market first over the summer (as my colleague Tim Beyers wrote about back in June). A version for the PCs running Windows 7 and 8 has just been made available for download.

The software not only ports Android apps over to foreign environments, but scales them, as well. No need to squint at a phone-sized app blinking away on a big PC monitor; App Player resizes it, apparently without pixilation or performance degradation.

Of course, the real value of something like this is its use on tablets and phones. That's been the Achilles' heel of Microsoft's Windows Phone environment; it simply doesn't have enough apps. Both Apple and Android, due to their prominence and their ubiquity, were able to induce developers to make thousands of little programs for their mobile operating systems. Not so with Microsoft. After all, who wants to spend time and money developing for an operating system that hardly anyone uses?

As a result, the numbers are extremely lopsided. Apple can boast about the 740,000 or so apps available to iOS users, and Android's the happy home to around 675,000. Microsoft's mobile OS is very much the laggard, at around 100,000 or so as of this past summer.

Ready out of the box
Before long, users of some devices won't even have to go to the trouble of downloading App Player to get all those nice Android mini-programs. Underdog chip maker AMD (NYSE: AMD) has signed a deal with BlueStacks -- for which, by the way, it's helped provide early-stage funding -- to pack App Player directly into its processors. This means that hardware powered by AMD in the near future, be it a PC, tablet, or a phone, will be Android-ready.

AMD is a long way from being a player in the Windows Phone space. Windows Phones have historically only used Qualcomm's ARM-based Snapdragon processors. Intel has said it has the "hooks" to bring Windows Phone to x86 processors -- the kind of processor AMD also designs -- but that it's seeking confirmation Windows Phone is commercially viable. So, the opening is there for a potential future where AMD joins the Windows Phone world. Likewise, AMD has partnered with ARM Holdings and many see AMD eventually using that partnership to move further into the mobile space.

More to the point, we saw Research In Motion attempt to emulate the Android Store when it released its PlayBook to get a wider library of apps. It's beyond unlikely Microsoft would follow such a route itself, but innovative third-party companies like BlueStacks could create their own solutions to bringing more apps to Windows Phone. With Nokia continuing to struggle and other companies like Samsung releasing their own Windows Phone 8 smartphones, could creating a BlueStacks-like AppPlayer on Windows Phone not only differentiate Nokia in the Windows Phone space, but actually help solve their app problem?

Turning the tide?
In many ways, Microsoft and Nokia are well-matched as partners, former top dogs pushing hard to regain their once-dominant positions. Those recent stumbles haven't helped matters, so both really need a victory -- and a big one, the sooner the better. Ideas like App Zone probably won't be the shot that wins the war, but it sure is good ammunition to have in the fight.

But can it drain customers away from the two-headed iOS/Android giant that currently rules the land? That remains to be seen, but Microsoft and Nokia will try their level best to make that happen. The consequences of failure are grim.

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