It’s CES week. This means that the future of technology is rearing it’s ambitious head in full force. Despite TVs you can talk to, cheap quad-core tablets, and a refrigerator that can chill your beer in five minutes, few things are quite as ambitious as Intel’s Android-powered smartphones. The potential for Android on Intel processors goes far beyond the relatively mundane handsets shown off on stage this week, though.
Let’s step back for just a moment and imagine that there’s other devices worth paying attention to. I know, but bear with me. For the last decade or more, Windows has dominated the desktop world, and for good reason. For years, Windows was the platform you could do anything on and you could run it on any hardware. Macs were expensive and didn’t have a huge enough software library. Linux was, well, Linux. So, Microsoft ran all the way to market dominance.
The smartphone world has fared better for competition. Apple’s large enough now that they can keep to their own ecosystem and still achieve success in the market. Microsoft can take their time building a platform, relying on their PC business to subsidize their efforts. Finally, Google entered into the then-new market with the now-huge Android. In the area of smartphones we’re finally seeing the level of competition that we severely lacked in the desktop world.
We might not be lacking it for very long, though. Apple and Google have both been circling Microsoft for the last year or so with their ventures into the world of desktop computing. Apple obviously has the advantage in that they already have a desktop operating system, but their integration with their mobile OS became apparent with the advent of OS X Lion. The groundwork is slowly being laid to integrate with—or at least create a consistent experience with—iOS.
Meanwhile, Android has been taking a rather roundabout approach. Chrome OS exists but, if we’re honest, it’s going nowhere. It ironically competes with Android on some fronts, and finds it difficult to justify its own existence on others. Android proper, however, is actually more powerful than Chrome OS as a desktop OS. Take a look at this video, of NVIDIA’s press conference at CES 2012, just a couple days ago, where NVIDIA unwittingly demonstrates the future of Android.
NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang sits down in front of an ASUS Transformer Prime, one of the top Android tablets on the market right now. The tablet is docked into the full keyboard dock. Huang taps an icon on the screen of the tablet and then—pay attention or you might miss it—grabs a nearby wireless mouse and uses the mouse to control the tablet from then on out. The transition is so fast that it’s easy to miss that it even happens.
Android is a windowed mode away from being a full desktop OS.
Of course, this peripheral support has existed since Android 3.1, which landed on Honeycomb tablets early last year. The ability to use a mouse isn’t itself revolutionary (anymore). The next day, though, Intel announced that they would be creating x86-powered Android devices with Motorola for the next several years. This is a big deal for a few reasons, not the least of which because it introduces even more competition into the mobile processor industry.
The bigger deal, though, is that Android on x86 processors will ultimately lead to Android on desktops and laptops. There’s currently a world of differences between the processors in phones and the processors in laptops and desktops. Intel is bridging that gap. In today’s world, you can take a Windows install disc, take it to just about any piece of hardware and install the OS. Mac OS X can’t do this. It’s not possible to imagine a world, though, where Android might.
There’s still a long ways to go. Getting an OS to work on a variety of hardware is insanely difficulty. It takes time. It won’t happen this year. It might not even happen next year. However, Google’s ambitions with Android are clear: they want everything electronic to be a potential platform for Android. It would be foolhardy to believe that they don’t include desktops in this.
Of course there’s still one nagging thing left, isn’t there? Windows. Not Windows, but rather windows. The power and flexibility from Windows and Mac OS X come in no small part from their ability to utilize the real estate of huge screens and keyboards and mice. Apple and Microsoft are approaching the problem of unifying all the different methods of input and output by making their desktop OSes a bit more palatable for touch. There’s some problems with their approaches, though.
For Apple’s part, they’ve laid the groundwork, but have yet to execute. Lion has many elements that look touch friendly, but there’s no actual touch interfaces. The trackpads are great for gestures, but the giant grid of icons, or the big, touch-friendly Exposé are useless if you can’t actually put your fingers on them. Apple may yet attempt to implement a touch interface in OS X, but until they do, their UI efforts are inert. Oh, and lest we forget, even putting a touchscreen in an iMac would still leave iOS and OS X as separate entities. In the future world where unified ecosystems matter more than individual devices, this won’t stand for too long.
Then there’s Microsoft. By approaching the problem of merging desktops, tablets, and phones from the opposite direction, they’re faced with a conundrum: virtually every desktop and laptop in the world runs Windows, an OS designed from the ground up with a mouse in mind. What they need, though, is an OS designed with touch in mind that also supports a mouse. You saw in the NVIDIA video that Huang was able to jump from touching the screen to using a mouse with almost no effort. This is because big, finger-friendly buttons are easy to click with a mouse. However, small, mouse-friendly menus are not quite so easy to tap with a finger. There’s a ton of software on Windows that needs to be rewritten or redesigned to make use of the new touchscreen tech in Windows 8.
Microsoft has the developer relations to pull it off, no doubt. That being said, it will still take time. Which makes this a race. Will Android be able to build in support for Intel chipsets and a windowed environment before Microsoft is able to make Windows 7 productivity tools useful in Windows 8? And how long will it take companies like Adobe or Valve, major players in non-OS software, to get on board with either of these?
Make no mistake, Android is gunning for nothing less than the crown Windows currently has. Apple wants in on it, too, but like with most things Apple does, their devotion to a single type of hardware, or a single production line will likely handicap them. Apple’s competing for the best, Microsoft and Google are competing for everything else.
It’s difficult to imagine a world where Windows users just up and leave Windows for, say, Ubuntu en masse solely because it’s free. It’s not quite as impossible, however, to imagine a world where Android phone and tablet users decide, in a few years, to ditch Windows for a desktop-worthy version of Android. Assuming the software ecosystem can catch up.