Move over, Google: Microsoft’s the new Android trailblazer

Every year ’round this time, we start thinking about what Google’s got in store for Android in the months ahead. And broad trends aside, the biggest questions tend to revolve around the year’s upcoming Android release.

Some Android versions are mostly about under-the-hood improvements, while others focus on bits of subtle but significant polish. And sometimes, we see massive foundational changes to what the operating system represents — the switch to on-screen navigation buttons in 2011’s Honeycomb and Ice Cream Sandwich; the introduction of the modern, card-centric Material Design interface in 2014’s Lollipop; and then the advent of gesture-driven navigation in 2018’s Pie (and, uh, again in last year’s Android 10 update).

It’s still too soon to know for sure what themes we’ll see come up with this year’s Android 11 offering, but I have a sneaking suspicion the most interesting and potentially transformative advancements for Android this year won’t actually be connected to that software at all — or to any of Google’s own efforts, for that matter.

Stay with me here, ’cause I swear I haven’t lost my mind: The most consequential changes to the way we use and think about Android in 2020 might come from…Microsoft.

Yes, Microsoft. What a weird, upside-down world we live in, I know. But when you stop and think about it, it actually makes an awful lot of sense.

After failing to serve the Android faithful for ages — first ignoring the platform entirely and then wildly misunderstanding its nature for a while — Microsoft started getting serious about our virtual stomping ground a few years back. It made almost shockingly good versions of its office apps for Android, created its own Android launcher to turn Microsoft into a focal point of the phone-using experience, and then little by little built out an entire Microsoft sub-platform that existed within Google’s virtual walls.

The company essentially created a Windows Phone 2.0, in other words, only this time doing it in a way that piggybacked off the world’s most widely used operating system instead of trying to go up against it. Just like Google, amusingly enough, Microsoft is now taking a post-OS eraapproach and focusing on ecosystem over operating system.

So when we heard last year that Microsoft was building its first self-made Android device, the dual-screened Microsoft Surface Duo, it was clear this wasn’t gonna be Yet Another Unremarkable Android Phone. Microsoft was up to something grander here — something intriguingly unusual and decidedly different.