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?

Kevin Fogarty

September 5, 2012

7 Min Read
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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 OSThe 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.

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