Microsoft and Samsung need each other now more than ever

Outside of its hardware announcements, one of the bigger takeaways from yesterday’s Samsung event was its ever-closer relationship with Microsoft. The two companies are partnering together on everything from mobile gaming bundles, to optimizing their apps and integrating their software. They even announced that you’ll soon be able to use and control multiple apps from your Samsung phone directly on your Windows 10 PC, as well as use your Samsung tablet as a secondary display.

It’s not a new partnership, and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella even personally appeared at Samsung’s Note 10 event last year. But it’s more important than ever before, as the industry hurtles toward the next big ecosystem battle between iOS and Android. It’s no longer just about the phones themselves but about how these phones interact with the other computers in your life, whether they’re laptops, desktops, or even game consoles. And Samsung’s deepening partnership with Microsoft is essential to its approach.

Samsung and Microsoft announced a lot of codeveloped projects yesterday, encompassing everything from gaming, to office apps and productivity software.

On the gaming side, the focus was Microsoft’s xCloud game streaming service. The features, which build on an existing xCloud partnership, include a special version of the Xbox Game Pass app on Samsung’s Galaxy Store that will come with features not available in the Google Play Store version. There’s also a gaming bundle for the Note 20 coming that will include three months of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate alongside a third-party controller designed to play streamed games.

Their productivity and office software is also getting more deeply integrated. Notes from the Samsung Notes app will sync with Outlook and OneNote, and Samsung Reminders will sync across multiple Microsoft services including Microsoft To Do, Teams, and Outlook. Samsung also said that it was working with Microsoft to optimize apps like PowerPoint, Word, and Excel for the display of the Galaxy Z Fold 2, and there were even minor tie-ups like being able to use the Galaxy Tab S7 as an external display for Windows 10 machines.

But the most important feature, and the one that gives the clearest example of the benefits of Samsung and Microsoft’s partnership, was the new Your Phone functionality. Yesterday, Microsoft announced that Windows 10 testers would be able to run Android apps side by side with Windows programs and, at the moment, it works exclusively with Samsung phones. Samsung said during its event that the functionality would expand to let you run multiple apps side by side later this year.

I don’t doubt that this feature has been in the works for some time, but it’s hard not to compare it to Apple’s demo from WWDC 2020 where it showed iOS and iPadOS apps running natively on macOS thanks to its upcoming transition to ARM-based processors. Apple and Samsung appear to be taking two different approaches here — Apple’s machines are running mobile apps natively while Samsung’s appear to be streaming from a connected phone — but the end result is similar: using mobile apps on your computer.

And Google — which makes Android — hardly seems to be in the conversation. Literally: the company didn’t get a mention until the final third of Samsung’s keynote. Google’s ecosystem solution is to allow Android apps to run on top of Chrome OS as well as some minor Android / Chrome OS integrations like tethering. But the feature has been historically buggy and Chrome OS in general hasn’t managed to expand beyond its historical niches.

Look at all three, though, and you can clearly see a trend: the boundaries between what is a phone, a tablet, and a laptop are becoming blurrier than ever. My colleague Dieter Bohn has been asking “What’s a computer?” for years now, and it’s a question that’s getting increasingly difficult to answer with every accessory that adds a keyboard or trackpad to a traditional tablet, or a touchscreen to a laptop.

It’s a trend that may put Samsung at a disadvantage compared to Apple. Apple already controls enough about its mobile and computing ecosystems that it can offer cross form-factor features like Continuity, but with its switch to using ARM-based processors on the Mac, it will gain a unified app ecosystem that could eventually stretch from phones all the way up to professional desktop computers like the Mac Pro.

Apple’s control over every aspect of its devices means it alone can draw the boundaries between its phones, tablets, and computers. Apple can decide to make the iPad work as a secondary display for the Mac, without having to make whatever agreement Samsung and Microsoft did to get the same functionality for the Android-powered Tab S7 and Windows 10. Apple alone can add significant new features to iPadOS to make it work with external mice and trackpads; it alone is responsible for deciding that MacBooks shouldn’t have touchscreens; and it alone has put macOS and iPadOS on a collision course with one another.

This power disparity means Samsung needs partners like Microsoft now more than ever if it wants its products to work together as seamlessly as Apple’s do. As the primary developer of Android, Google is another immensely important partner, but Android’s open-source core gives Samsung more latitude to build its own features on top of it via its One UI software.

Against the monolith of Apple, Samsung’s approach has its advantages. Rather than trying to do everything inside one walled garden, Samsung is able to defer to Microsoft’s biggest strengths. Take xCloud. The same day Xbox’s Phil Spencer appeared during Samsung’s demonstration that Xbox was working with Samsung to offer the “best possible gaming experience,” it ended its xCloud game streaming test on iOS devices. Apple’s App Store policies are thought to be the problem.

The split means that Samsung phone owners, along with the rest of the Android community, will get access to xCloud’s library of games, while Apple users are limited to playing games that run natively across their devices (Google’s Stadia game streaming service is also not available on iOS). That still includes plenty of games made for the iPhone and iPad which will soon run natively on ARM-based Macs, and it also includes many great games from Apple’s own subscription service, but it won’t include big AAA Xbox titles like those from the Forza and Gears of War series.

Native games are not the same thing as streamed games, but Samsung users get both, while Apple’s only get one.

I wrote last year that Samsung isn’t going it alone in its fight against Apple and Google, and yesterday’s Note 20 event couldn’t have made that clearer. The futures of smartphones, laptops, and tablets are colliding, and Samsung doesn’t have the control to be able to forge a path on its own. Thanks to its ever increasing number of partnerships with Microsoft, however, it has a partner that can help it get there.