If there’s one thing you can count on people doing with any open source operating system, it’s porting it. Case in point: Android, originally meant for smartphones and tablets, is now popping up on notebooks and desktop machines courtesy of an unofficial x86 edition.
This leads me to the obvious question: Does Android have a future as the next big desktop OS? If you ask me, it’s not as ridiculous an idea as it might seem. But it faces some major obstacles to becoming a reality.
Let’s start with the easy reasons and obvious rationalizations for a desktop version of Android. Two wags have opined that “Android is the new Windows,” in the sense of Android being “a flexible, customizable operating system that’s farmed out to third-party hardware makers and dominates market share but not profits.” Android stands in contrast to iOS the way Windows stands in contrast to Mac OS X, with Android devices offering a breadth of experience and granularity of customization that iOS devices don’t.
Then there is the simple fact that, for a great swath of casual and not-so-casual users, Android and iOS are becoming their day-to-day OSes. Time and again I run into people who pick up a phone or a table and realize that 99% of what they were doing with a full-blown PC is satisfied quite nicely by such a device. They don’t seem all that upset by the lack of a keyboard or a mouse--well, until they try to type something more substantial than a tweet. But more on that later.
So what are the obstacles to keeping everyone from ditching Windows in favor of Android? There’s quite a few, which range widely in degree of difficulty:
Devices and form factors. The vast majority of devices running Android are designed to be mobile first, with everything else coming in a distant second. I hinted above how some people really need a mouse and keyboard to get their work done, and while keyboards are not exactly alien technology in Android-land, they’re far more prevalent in the Windows world--if only because the latter has been a typing-first experience and the former a touch-first one. Why that’s the case is our next issue.
Workloads and applications. Most of the real Work with a capital W that’s done on a PC requires a keyboard, a mouse and maybe also a display a bit larger than a postage stamp. I don’t have trouble poking out a tweet or a short email on my phone, but anything longer than that is a source of both eyestrain and psychic exhaustion. (I tried composing a fairly long email on my phone while on a recent trip; it almost killed me.)
The other half of this equation is the apps needed to do major work in Android. The constraints of both work synergistically: There isn’t much impetus to create more ambitious applications in Android because they wouldn’t get used properly, and no impetus to create the environment to use them well because they don’t exist yet. It comes down to a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma.
On top of that, there’s the fact that the biggest and most important desktop apps in Windows are creations that are either too top-heavy for Android (Adobe Photoshop) or are products that remain tied to Windows for political reasons (Microsoft Office). Some of what you can do in those apps can be accomplished elsewhere, but not all of them.
[While there are challenges for Android on the desktop, it's a prime target for enterprises developing mobile applications. Read how Mobile Backend-as-a-Service could help companies as they make the mobile transition in "Are Backend Cloud Services the Key to Enterprise Mobile Apps?"]
What the underlying OS will support. In a way, this is the least problematic issue because the sheer number of things Android does support is exploding with each successive release of the OS. There’s always the issue of device drivers for hardware, but this has become less of a problem as time has gone on. In fact, it’s become easier, not harder, to do this. When many systems use, for instance, the Intel 4000 chip set, that makes them all easier to support.
Google.There’s a fourth issue, one so big it could simply be called “Google.” Google’s plans for Android have largely revolved around using mobile devices as auxiliary monetization methods for its ad system and third-party content partners. In other words, the OS itself is a loss leader, much as the razor-thin margins of PC hardware are themselves loss leaders for PC makers that recoup through add-ons: services, support contracts, auxiliary hardware bundled with the system, third-party software preloaded at the factory, and so on.
Such a strategy doesn’t seem to support getting behind Android as a desktop OS unless one of two things happens: a) Google figures it’s a good idea, or b) there’s such a groundswell of support for making Android into a desktop OS that Google decides to get behind it and push anyway.
The first of those two seems unlikely, if only because Google doesn’t really think the desktop as we currently know it has much of a future. Sure, there’s Google Chrome for the PC and Mac, but that’s less about creating great PC and Mac software than it is about getting people involved in Google’s platforms in one form or another.
The second I see being marginally more possible--and, irony of ironies, being one of the ways the “Linux on the desktop” crowd would see its own prophecy fulfilled. The good news would be that Linux has arrived on the desktop. The bad news: It’s courtesy of Big Brother Google, not a federation of allied hackers and open source advocates.
So, in the end, the fact that Android could be a presence on the desktop doesn’t mean it is likely to be. It’s entirely possible that I’ll be seeing intrepid folks--myself possibly among them--running versions of Android on notebook hardware as a direct alternative to Windows.
But it isn’t likely the work we do that’s tied to the Windows ecosystem will be reincarnated on the Android any time soon. And it’s a toss-up as to whether Android won't be up to the job, or whether that work will simply no longer need to be done anymore because we’ve moved on and found better ways.
I hope it’s the second choice.