More details about Microsoft’s self-Palming

Opinion: Technical details explain the song and dance

2012 Microsoft LogoIt seems that Microsoft’s self-Palming is uglier than we thought, some new information makes things a bit clearer. Thanks to reader Brett for some tips that both confirm possibilities we earlier speculated about and also add some technical details.

If you recall in our earlier piece, we said that by emulation and recompilation of iOS and Android apps, Microsoft was putting itself at the mercy of its two fiercest competitors. In effect it was relying on them to not do what it did to them in previous years, the entire Microsoft mobile strategy is being bet on Google and Apple playing nice. No, not just playing nice, going out of their way and expending effort to make Microsoft’s already dead mobile strategy viable. Fat chance.

Of late Microsoft has been playing very dirty pool with Google at the very least, remember the Scroogled campaign to name just one? You can almost feel the love for Microsoft at Google HQ. Want to bet there are several Google staffers with Scroogled items on their desk as motivation? How about the ongoing ‘grassroots’ dirty tricks campaign at the EU? In short asking these two to do exactly the opposite of what Microsoft has done and continues to do to them is flat-out absurd.

The new information was originally posted by Brett here, and he has since sent me another link posted below. The new data is simple enough, Apple already requires code signing and encryption for their apps. From the latest link either of us could find, it looks like Google only requires signing for authenticity but not encryption. You may be able to encrypt an Android app but it doesn’t appear to be mandatory.

Those two data points are the key to Microsoft’s differing behavior, iOS apps are encrypted for security, Android apps do not appear to be. Why is this important? Antisocial, broken, and evil laws in the US like the DMCA and related anti-compatibility restrictions. They put coders, users, and enthusiasts in a really unfortunate place, effectively outlawing compatible products as long as there is the merest hint of protective measures like encryption.

The net result is that if you put a DRM system in place, even one as trivial as the ROT13 example we gave earlier, you have legal protection. Anyone cracking your product is doing something clearly illegal under previous law, that much is clear and most consider such restrictions morally correct. If you need to reverse engineer that encryption to, for example, make something compatible with the product, even if you don’t tamper with the DRM itself, you are suddenly a criminal. A good example of this is Libre Office not being able to open encrypted Office documents, the coders know how to make it compatible, they still need the user to enter the correct password, but if they implement it they are breaking the law. This is just dumb.

Unfortunately it is also exactly what the copyright MAFIAA want, they know DRM is a lost cause, there really has been nothing ‘protected’ that way that you can’t find on torrent sites in short order. DRM has been an abject failure in 100% of the cases, but it is still insisted upon by many organizations. Why? It governs control, compatibility, and keeps users locked in. If Microsoft encrypts a document format, anyone making something that can potentially open that format suddenly needs a license. Microsoft can make them pay arbitrary amounts or just say no. Same with Blu-Ray, ever wonder why licensed discs have mandatory encryption even if the authors don’t want it? Control over players and a hefty per-disc (Last time we looked it was per-disc anyway) fee to those with finger in the Blu-Ray licensing pool.

DRM related laws preclude compatibility by law even if doing so is completely within the spirit of the law. Another good example is playing the Blu-Ray discs on Linux, it is nearly impossible to play a legally purchased disc on a legally purchased drive on your PC without ripping it. This is of course illegal and to the best of my knowledge the licensing bodies involved won’t allow any legal software to be ported to the platform. There are lots of illegal ways to do it but it you want to stay legal like I do, you are screwed. This is why I stopped buying movies many years ago, and unfortunately for the industry I stopped consuming them too. That is the idiocy of US DRM laws, they make walled gardens that are trivial to break out of but impossible to work with legitimately if you want to remain legal.

Back to apps, remember how Microsoft is making Android apps available through emulated on Windows directly but iOS apps need to be recompiled? It isn’t as if Microsoft couldn’t make an emulation platform for iOS apps, they just can’t do so without running afoul of the broken copyright system. The same blunt weapon they use to shut down those trying to make products compatible with Office is now smacking them on the side of the head. Hard. And there is nothing they can legally do about it.

On Android, if our reading of the developer pages is correct, the apps are signed but not encrypted so they can be emulated. This is the kind of technical stupidity in the law that allows Microsoft to emulate Android and get away with it. And it is the key difference between Android and Apple at this point. All Google needs to do is make encryption mandatory with the next point release and Microsoft’s app dreams go up in a puff of legal engineering that they helped inflict on the world. In this case it couldn’t be more ironic.

So that explains the reason behind the differing app compatibility strategies, and we will bet Google starts encrypting apps in very short order. Then Microsoft will be have to make the same offer to Android devs that they do to iOS devs, recompilation for Windows platforms. They will likely have the software and tools ready, and be in at least as good a shape as they are on iOS.

That said this is all a PR ploy, it has no bearing on the real world. Why? Because there are already more than enough tools out there to do cross-platform app development and make it as close to a no-brainer as it can be. If you use those frameworks it is still far from easy but it is possible to make something work on all 2.03 major platforms, Android, iOS, and Windows. Here are the first seven cross-platform mobile development tools I found after ~10 minutes of looking, there are dozens more. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

Unfortunately Microsoft went far out of its way to make Windows mobile apps look and work differently from the other two functional and widespread OSes. This means any quick port will still look and work ‘wrong’ for the platform, if it doesn’t fatally conflict with some Windows UI function or other. For anything but the most trivial of programs, it is going to require a lot of coding and porting work. In essence this ‘new’ paradigm is exactly where third-party tools have been for years only now you can get one from Microsoft itself. It isn’t a big deal at all, it is just one of a few dozen similar tools with a big name attached.

Unfortunately devs have voted in droves already, this ‘simple’ porting process is simply not worth it. From the lack of revenue possibilities to the lack of users, there is just no return if you port to Microsoft’s mobile platforms, period. Another vendor with a cross-platform development tool set won’t change a thing that the last 10 or so tools that do the same thing didn’t. How bad is the revenue situation? According to Opera Mediaworks, Windows devices accounted for 0.13% of revenue in 2014, a staggeringly small number. To put that in further perspective, Symbian had 0.47% or more than 3.5x the Windows share, and moribund Blackberry was 0.49%. When Blackberry towers over you for revenue, you have a problem. Apple products had a hair more than 100x the revenue of Blackberry’s, more than enough of a difference for developers to notice.

Microsoft may deny this, they may talk up their tools, they may claim the third-party revenue figures are all wrong, but they also deleted the threads of developer complaints in the ITWorld article above. There is no revenue on Windows platforms for developers and thus no incentive to fix even the most minor of porting hiccups, there is zero chance of payback. That simple fact destroys Microsoft’s grand plan. It is folly. Most devs were either burnt or know someone who was in the first 2-3 rounds of Microsoft’s mobile game plan, good luck enticing them back.

Worse yet this awful situation is before Google locks Microsoft out of emulation. And it is before Google and Apple can play the dirty tricks they learned from Microsoft on their teacher. And it is before all the other headaches facing potential developers, you have only heard the happy side so far. This grand plan had no chance from before the beginning, it is just a PR game to make Microsoft look relevant in mobile. They are not, and no amount of paid and tame press coverage will change that.S|A

The following two tabs change content below.

Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and SemiAccurate.com. SemiAccurate.com is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of SemiAccurate.com, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also a council member with Gerson Lehman Group. FullyAccurate