Microsoft is giving some more love to Android with a handful of exclusive apps.
The new Android apps include a voice control tool for Android Wear smartwatches called Bing Torque, a journaling app called Journeys and Notes, and an alternative lock screen called Next Lock Screen. They’re all available free from the Google Play Store.
These aren’t just random projects. They’re part of a revamped initiative within Microsoft that encourages employees to experiment in their spare time. Dubbed Microsoft Garage, the effort was previously limited to Windows and Office projects, but now Microsoft is turning it into a launch pad for consumer-facing apps on all platforms.
Why this matters: Garage is yet another sign of Microsoft’s new ethos to embrace rival platform like Android. Company executives have talked about having a “challenger mindset ” as Microsoft’s share of overall computing devices shrinks, and letting individual developers release their own-cross platform apps fits in with that mentality perfectly. The project is also an indication that Microsoft wants to release more products to the world—even experimental ones—rather than letting them languish in the lab.
Taking Garage apps for a spin
While it’s encouraging that Microsoft is giving its employees more free reign, that doesn’t mean the apps are all ready for prime time.
Torque, for instance—pictured at top—lets Android Wear users initiate a Bing search by flicking their wrists up and down. While it’s easier to invoke than Google’s own voice commands (activated by tapping the screen or saying “Ok Google”), it doesn’t support phone-based actions like sending a text message or playing music. The wrist control is also probe to accidental activation, and occasionally I received “Sorry, this is on Windows only” errors for actions that are definitely supported, such as checking the weather.
Next Lock Screen seems fairly polished, putting missed calls and upcoming appointments on your Android phone’s lock screen and letting you take immediate action. The app also includes shortcuts to frequently used apps that change throughout the day, along with common tools like the flashlight and orientation lock. It may be useful for users with frequent appointments, but some of its functionality will be redundant as Android 5.0 Lollipop brings lock screen notifications to the baseline Android experience.
Journeys and Notes, unlike the other two apps, isn’t meant to replace some core Android functionality. Instead, it’s a way to take notes as you travel, and share those notes with other people who are taking similar trips. It sounds neat in theory, but I haven’t been able to get past the loading screen. Other reviewers in the Google Play Store have run into the same problem.
Keep in mind, however, that this is just the start of Microsoft’s new initiative. If Garage is the incubator that Microsoft purports it to be, then hopefully it’ll produce some genuinely useful apps with time.
Jared Newman has been helping folks make sense of technology for over a decade, writing for PCWorld, TechHive, and elsewhere. He also publishes two newsletters, Advisorator for straightforward tech advice and Cord Cutter Weekly for saving money on TV service.