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Android is the Biggest Future Threat for Windows

December 22, 2012 16 comments

In a previous post from just over a year ago (How iOS and Android Will Affect PC Evolution) I wrote about how the superior user experience of mobile computing devices was changing consumer expectations about personal computing. Since then even more powerful mobile CPUs and GPUs have been introduced. Mobile operating systems have also become more capable without losing much (if any) of their usability advantages over the ones currently running on laptops and desktops.

A couple of recent experiences have only reinforced my belief that the operating systems of personal computers in the near future will increasingly resemble (and be derived) from their mobile counterparts. I also believe that Android, not iOS, is likely to be the biggest future threat to Windows. So how did I come to this conclusion? Let me start by describing a couple of the above mentioned experiences.

My first experience came about recently when I was trying out some laptops and tablets at the local branch of a well know chain store. After trying out a few demo laptops preloaded with Window 8, including some very nice ones with SSDs, I passed by a display with Android tablets and decided to try them too. One of the units was a newer Transformer tablet running Android 4.1. I tried performing a variety of common actions from opening large and complex websites on the browser, checking the mobile office suite etc. I was however struck by one thing.

The Android 4.1-running Transformer ‘tablet-top’ blew the Windows 8- running laptops out of the water in many areas ranging from the speed of cold bootup to the responsiveness and functionality of applications and the OS in general. While the construction quality of the Windows 8 laptops was better than the Asus ‘tablet-top’ there was no doubt in my mind that the later offered a superior personal computing experience.

My next epiphany was the result of trying out the ‘mobile’ versions of a few specialized scientific software that I have used for many years. While the quality and features of such mobile versions used to be rather mediocre and limited- as late as last year, that is no longer the case. The iOS and Android versions of these applications now approach or exceed the features of 4-5 year old desktop versions of the same. They also have almost all of the commonly used features and functionalities found in their desktop conterparts.

It does not take a genius to realize that the capabilities of the CPUs and operating systems of mobile devices are only going to improve- at least in the next few years. Even today, mobile devices provide a superior user experience for performing common tasks such as surfing the web, checking emails, looking at content, checking social media feeds etc. Now specialized software applications are also getting into the act. It is only a matter of time before someone starts building full-fledged laptops with ARM-based CPUs and a mobile-derived operating system.

So who will be the winner in this computing expansion/shift- as far as current contenders are concerned?

While iOS is the oldest, most well-known and well-designed mobile operating system- it is owned by Apple. Given the short-term focus and lack of imagination that characterizes senior corporate management, it is unlikely that Apple will make that leap. In any case, the lucrativeness of the current and future sales of their mobile devices might make them averse to taking another big leap- especially since Steve Jobs passed away. While features of iOS will continue to trickle into OSX and its successor, I would be very surprised if they made any truly revolutionary changes- even though iOS and OSX are not that far apart.

Moving on to Microsoft, my experience with Windows 8 (on even Intel i7-CPU containing laptops) suggest that the company has much to learn about building uncluttered, responsive and user-friendly mobile operating systems. While they have concentrated on reproducing (and even surpassing) the visual effects of iOS and Android, the interface and user-friendliness of their OS and the applications running on it leaves much to be desired. There is no point in creating a mobile version of office applications if you don’t carefully think through what your users use and don’t use. Shoehorning a simplified-looking version of your desktop software onto a mobile platform is a recipe for losing users. Similarly creating an operating-system without well thought out controls and consistent behavior does help your case either- a lesson that Android learned the hard way.

Which leaves us with Google’s Android.. Now I an aware that it too has had its own issues in the past. However Android has grown past them and the latest 2 versions are clearly better than other mobile OSes as far as intrinsic capabilities and potential for expansion are concerned. Apart from it being free and open-source (hackable), the diversity of applications available for it ensure that geek-driven expansion of its abilities will be much faster than the much more tightly controlled iOS. I believe that the future personal computing OS is most likely to be derived from Android. And yes, I am aware that Google is also trying to sell ‘Chrome OS’ Laptops and Netbooks- without much success.

Let me be also clear about one thing- I do not expect the shift from Windows type OSes to Android type OSes to be sudden or complete. Microsoft will probably keep on selling current and future versions of Windows as long as they run legacy applications- especially important for their businesses clientele. I also do not expect Google to openly and aggressively challenge Microsoft for domination of the personal computing market. The change will come from some medium-sized manufacturers/assemblers of mobile devices or laptops tinkering around existing hardware to produce that one ‘hit’ which will make them rich and famous. While most of such attempts will fail, a few that will succeed and inspire better copies by more well-known manufacturers who will then push it as their own. I do not expect the process to be smooth and predictable- but it is very likely to occur within the next 3-4 years.

What do you think? Comments?