Alexander Cifuentes / Unsplash
Alexander Cifuentes / Unsplash

You’ve got to hand it to Microsoft: it really, really wants to be part of the smartphone party, no matter how many times it slinks off home early after being roundly rejected by consumers. 

While it still makes its own handset in the chunky dual-screen form of the Surface Duo, this isn’t an attempt to get back into hardware making — the NZ$9.3 billion purchase of Nokia a decade ago remains an expensive learning moment in that respect. 

Instead, the latest wheeze will see Microsoft opening up Xbox-branded games to existing Android and iPhone hardware via its own third-party app stores.

“We want to be in a position to offer Xbox and content from both us and our third-party partners across any screen where somebody would want to play,” Microsoft Gaming chief executive Phil Spencer told the Financial Times. “Today, we can’t do that on mobile devices but we want to build towards a world that we think will be coming where those devices are opened up.”

That sounds like a big ask, given Apple isn’t keen on letting anybody sell directly to iPhone owners without the App Store taking a 30% cut. But remember that the EU is about to force both Apple and Google’s hand on that score via the Digital Markets Act

Unless it’s successfully appealed, that mandates both Apple and Google to allow third-party app stores onto their phones by March 2024 in the name of competition, and that’s when Microsoft aims to strike. 

“The Digital Markets Act that’s coming — those are the kinds of things that we are planning for,” Spencer said. “I think it’s a huge opportunity.” 

For once, then, it seems like competition rules are playing in Microsoft’s favour. But hold your horses, because elsewhere, Microsoft’s plans could be scuppered by a different set of regulators.

By his own admission, Spencer says that the proposed purchase of Activision Blizzard fills an “obvious hole in our capacity” — specifically on mobile games, with the addition of everything from Call of Duty to Candy Crush Saga. 

And the completion of that purchase is far from a done deal with regulators all over the world looking sceptically at Microsoft owning so many games makers. The firm has already had to insult its own games and pinky promise to keep Call of Duty on other platforms for at least a decade — and even that doesn’t seem to have cleared the way just yet. Without Activision, Microsoft’s catalogue is considerably smaller and less appealing to the casual smartphone market. 

Is that enough to jettison a third-party iOS app store? Maybe not, given Microsoft can’t currently get Xbox Game Pass streaming on iOS because of Apple’s frustrating insistence that every game have its own app. But without the lure of Call of Duty and the like, consumers may decide that the Microsoft Store isn’t a must-have app in its own right.

Image: Alexander Cifuentes / Unsplash