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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 growing popularity of tablets within the pantheon of end-user computing devices has helped drive BYOD and cloud projects within the enterprise, made cell-phone networks a common remote-access option and brought relief to laptop-lugging road warriors worldwide. They've also made an even more fundamental change in the mix of devices for which corporate networking gurus are responsible, and, with Android, have given Microsoft the first really credible competitor to a major new version of Windows in more than a decade.

When it ships in October, Windows 8 will be the first major product of the Windows Runtime era, according to Michael Silver, a Gartner VP and distinguished analyst. Previous versions--commonly referred to under the blanket title WinNT--were designed to be chained to a desk or made luggable on laptops.

In Windows 8, Microsoft caved to the changing tastes of consumers with a version designed to run effectively on a range of wirelessly connected, touchscreen-enabled tablets--a contentious, highly changeable market in which Android is making rapid gains on Apple's iPad.

While half of all end users who own a tablet own an iPad, according to market research from Frank N. Magid Associates, it's a drop of nearly 50% compared with the 72% that the iPad held a year ago. And Android leads the smartphone OS market handily, after taking over the top spot from iOS, according to a survey from Gartner. By 2016, Android will hold 38% of the tablet market, compared with 31% now, according to Gartner. Windows 8 is projected to have 12% market share in 2016.

Tablets have become so popular, surveys from both Gartner and IDC agree, that sales of PCs dropped one-tenth of 1% in the second quarter of this year, compared with the same period in 2011. The shift has set the stage for a more dramatic competition, between the new-age, highly mobile Android and Microsoft's Windows, which was almost a non-entity in the smartphone and tablet market until the improvements in the Windows Phone OS made Microsoft a distant but credible competitor in the smartphone market, Silver says.

Windows 8 vs. Android

Windows 8 will not only have extensive support for tablets, touchscreens and mobile networks, but also the inertia of 30 years' worth of OS market dominance, Gartner's report predicted.

In this case, that means thousands of homegrown and commercial applications built using the Win32 set of APIs are still around and still runnable on Windows 8. Other operating systems spend years struggling to build a network of enough partners to produce an ecosystem of third-party software, not just a catalog of apps.

Windows has a lot more inertia working for it, too, according to IDC analyst Ian Song. IT and end users are both comfortable using Windows, so the learning curve is flat or nonexistent, Song says. Management apps, auditing tools, security software and all the other pieces of a large company's IT infrastructure also run on or are designed to connect to Windows machines, Song adds.

That makes it difficult for any competitor to make up ground, especially in large companies whose product-buying decisions are skewed as much by the products that they've already bought as by the products they're about to buy, he says.

Windows 8 also "provides a common interface and programming API set, from phones to servers," Silver says. That's a lot of flexibility for users, which Microsoft has claimed since its first smartphone operating system shipped, although it actually held major holes until Win8 came along to plug them up, he adds.

As long as it was only an OS for smartphones or tablets, Android was no real competitor to Windows, Song says. However, once Android started adding security, reliability, backup and clients supporting corporate apps, virtual-machine-based security and support, and cloud-based software, it became, conceptually at least, a much more direct competitor to Windows.

Google and the open-source developer community are making Android an even better Windows competitor, though their goal is only to make it a better platform for corporate computing by adding functions taken for granted in the PC world but almost nonexistent among mobile devices, according to Gartner's evaluation. One such feature is the ability to support more than one user login on the same tablet or laptop.

Next: Other Factors Holding Up the Android Desktop OS 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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