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Can Android Replace Windows?

Evidence is surfacing that the next version of Android will be more like a desktop than a smartphone. Can it compete with Windows 8?

The lack of support for multiuser logon isn't the only thing holding Android back from competing credibly as an alternative to Windows, however.

Despite incursions from Apple devices, Windows still runs on more than 90% of corporate desktops and laptops, according to market research firm NetMarketShare. Meanwhile, according to some analysts, iPads have already replaced nearly any device running any version of Windows as the hardware most coveted by business users.

When it comes to security, newer versions of Android are marginally more secure than the OS had been, yet only a little more than 10% of Android devices run up-to-date OSes.

Even the behavior of IT is something of a barrier.

According to a poll by InformationWeek, 48% of IT managers report that Android devices have disappeared from their companies during the past 12 months. Despite that, only 14% of IT managers in the same poll said they bother to encrypt data on Android devices, mainly because the demand isn't serious enough to justify the trouble or cost.

Android adapts quickly, however, adding support for new types of hardware, new networking functions and other features that helped it expand quickly beyond its original role as a feature-restricted cell-phone OS, according to consumerization blog PocketNow. Android is now able to support most of the hardware requirements for a desktop OS--it runs on Intel chips, supports USB devices, physical keyboards and mice, as well as security and software requirements including virtual private networks, SaaS applications, client-device virtualization and remote asset-management and control.

Android apps may be lightweight, on average, compared with those running on Windows, but they're popular enough to create demand for OS emulators such as BlueStacks' LayerCake.

Android isn't in a position to seriously challenge Windows as a corporate desktop any time soon, according to a May report describing Forrester's view of the post-PC era.

Sales of traditional laptops will continue to grow 8% per year through 2015, while sales of desktop hardware dips only slightly, even in 2015, the report projected. In 2015, Forrester projects, 82 million Americans will own a tablet, though 140 million will still own laptops.

Changes in the way both consumers and business users view computing hardware are causing big shifts in the mix of hardware being sold, however. The result will be a three-phase expansion of what end users consider their computing universe, the report concluded.

In the first wave, taking place now, post-PC devices will augment traditional PCs and the functions users still need them to deliver; the focus is interaction and synchronization between new devices and old.

In the second wave, "PCs are joined by smartphones and tablets, as well as future devices like wearables and surfaces," according to Sarah Rottman Epps, lead author of the report. "Imagine computing via a heads-up display embedded in your eyeglasses or contact lenses or learning about breaking news updates from a change in your electronics-embedded clothing. The products that will win have yet to be determined, but the underlying technological and social changes that will drive the post-PC forward are already here."

The upshot seems to be that both Microsoft and Google view the future as one in which they will see significant, head-to-head competition for business-user loyalty between Android and Windows, and are moving as quickly as they can to add features, line up partners and expand the list of useful business applications onto the platforms that business users seem to be demanding--a mix of software that runs on smartphones, tablets and laptops; integrates neatly with apps or data residing in both public and private clouds; and allows more than one user to log on to the same device without wiping out the previous user's settings.

Neither OS appears ready to fulfill that mission yet.

Analysts studying the business plans and beta code say it's clear Windows and Android are on a collision course--or at least are headed into a period of much more direct competition. During the next few years, most analysts conclude, development teams at both Google and Microsoft will have spent at least part of their energy trying to keep the other company from establishing a permanent dominance of the smartphone market and leveraging that into dominance of the market for on-premise and cloud-based versions of the operating system. Kevin Fogarty is a freelance writer covering networking, security, virtualization, cloud computing, big data and IT innovation. His byline has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, CNN.com, CIO, Computerworld, Network World and other leading IT publications. View Full Bio

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