Let's start with a disclaimer, shall we? Analysts are generally full of it. When we hear a claim that says, with undeserving certainty, that come 2016 there will be 2.3 billion Android and 2.28 billion Windows devices, we're a little skeptical. The likelihood that anyone knows exactly how many units of a particular platform will sell to that level of accuracy is almost none.

However, as we approach what might just be the single biggest week for Microsoft in decades, it's worth asking the question: are Android and Windows gearing up for a battle over the next few years? The question of smartphone dominance between iOS and Android is settled (Android won). In the tablet world, the iPad is still the king until there's a major shift. But desktops* are going unchallenged.

Aren't they?

* For the sake of simplicity, I'll be lumping "laptops" in the same category as "desktop". The arguments put forth here don't really change based on whether you can move easily move your Windows machine or not.

Computing Isn't What It Used To Be

The observant reader may have noticed that there has been a fundamental shift in the way software companies approach platforms in recent years. For decades, we saw the desktop as our primary device, and everything else was peripheral. Windows (or OS X) was just the program that ran all your other programs. "Features" for these OSes were largely centered around managing files or making installation and navigation of apps easier.

windows95 windows8

The changing shape of rectangles.

Then iOS and Android came on the scene. Suddenly we started seeing our phones and, eventually, our tablets as things to be compared to our desktops. Sure, for the most part it's agreed that nothing has replaced the desktop, and maybe in terms of form factor it never will. The idea, though, is what changed. For the first time in years, if you wanted to browse the web, watch a movie, listen to some music or—dare I say it?—create something, you might actually look to a tablet or a phone.

These platforms represented a very different take on operating systems, though. Whereas Microsoft has always faced substantial legal troubles if it tries goes too far with bundled services in its desktop OS (just look at the kerfuffle over including a web browser), iOS and Android could include music, video, books, magazines, email, calendar, chat, and all manner of other services without batting an eye. Suddenly, adding new features to an OS wasn't about changing up taskbars, adding ribbons, or managing libraries. It was about pursuing the future. Things like Voice Actions and speech-to-text transcription are forward-looking technology with huge infrastructure investments that push our experiences further than before. They're not buried in the OS as borderline accessibility functions, they're front-and-center.

So far, this shift hasn't been a problem for Microsoft. Apple sticks to its own hardware and, sure, OS X laptops are doing better than they were before, but Windows has an overwhelming stranglehold on PCs. And what is Google going to do? Start making Android laptops?

The Not-So-Secret Ubiquitous Platform Wars

transformerprime surface

They're hovering around each other's platforms like nervous lovers. God, just kiss already!

Actually...maybe. It's no secret that Google wants to start competing with Windows. Chrome OS is proof enough of this. Google even gave Samsung's latest Chromebook some premium space on the Play Store recently (though, to be fair, that space was previously held by the Nexus Q, so standards can't be too high). Mountain View has always had a problem consolidating its properties, so the bizarre two-pronged attack on mobile and desktops is odd, but could be merged in the future.

This is the problem that Microsoft faces. It's not that Android is selling a lot of phones. I'll get to that part in a bit, but suffice to say, if Android owns the smartphone market and Microsoft still owns the desktop world, Windows still won't "lose." Controlling 2 billion units isn't a "loss" by any stretch. So what is the real danger here?

Ubiquity. If you want to know why Microsoft is gunning so hard to put don't-call-it-Metro on everything, if you're wondering why they're building their own tablets, if you can't quite understand why they would risk 600 million current customers (just on Windows 7) - this is why. What Redmond wants to avoid is Google, and to a lesser extent Apple, circumventing the need for Windows. Sure, it's not possible now, but four years from now? Well, there are few ways this could go.

How, Exactly, Could Android Usurp Windows?

Here's the thing. Android, as we know it right now, doesn't compete with Windows. At least, not on the desktop. These are entirely different use cases and workflows, so claiming that Android could "overtake" Windows by 2016 in platform numbers is misleading. What Gartner means when is that there could be more Android devices in the world than computers. Well, sure. That's not hard to imagine. I own four Android devices (two phones, two tablets), but only two Windows machines, my desktop and laptop. I don't really upgrade the latter that often, but I generally expect new phones every couple of years, and my Nexus 7 was dirt cheap. They're entirely different markets and completely incomparable.

Let's take a step back though. We established earlier that Google does want to go after the desktop/laptop space. It can't right now, because Windows is sitting on decades of development in both first and third-party arenas, but it wants to. So, how could it accomplish that? The surprising answer is that Android is actually pretty damn close. Here is a small (and by no means comprehensive) list of things that Android would need to compete with Windows on a desktop in a very basic way:

Peripheral Support

This one started back in 2011. While our phones and tablets aim to be as completely independent as possible, the ability to plug in keyboards, external hard drives, game controllers, and any other USB device we can think of is essential for the modern desktop. This isn't about outsourcing hardware so much as being extensible. A desktop can be just about anything you want. A media center, an office workhorse, a video editor, a design studio, a music mixer. This flexibility is required of our most powerful machines and hardware augmentation is a big component of that. Interestingly, Android already has decent and expanding support for USB peripherals.

x86_64 Compatibility

In the desktop world, you're either an x86 processor, or you don't exist. Intel and AMD are the players in the Windows world and, as of right now, Android is only run on a comparatively small number of devices with those processors. In fact, the RAZR i is probably the biggest device yet to run the Intel Medfield platform. However, this is a very important step in Android's development. Intel is working overtime to make sure that the OS can run on its processors. It's not too big of a leap to go from the Atom to supporting more heavy-duty chips. Obviously Windows has the edge here, but Google could help push in this direction.

A Better UI For Larger Screens

This is the one area that Android is lacking in where there is plenty of room for expansion. As of right now, it's possible to use a keyboard and mouse in tandem with a touchscreen on Android. The UI is definitely optimized for use with fingers, and if you were to scale the homescreen up to 15" or 27", things could get ugly real fast. As of right now, people who use, say, the lapdock for a Transformer might find an early example of what Android on a laptop could feel like, but the experience obviously needs some improvements if it is to go beyond such a small display size.

There is a ton more that needs to be done, frankly. If you're hoping to download a disc and shove it into the nearest Windows machine and convert any time soon, you shouldn't hold your breath. However, it's not an entirely unrealistic possibility.

Of course, Android growing into a desktop OS is only one way that Microsoft could see a threat to its main platform. Chrome OS could, potentially, get better. Decent enough to steal away some laptop sales in any case. Or Chrome OS and Android could merge together to form a super-operating system. In fact, Sergey Brin even said back in 2009 that the two "will likely converge over time." And that's all without discussing the concern of Apple covering the netbook-like market with its range of iPads and the higher-end notebook market with the increasingly-popular MacBooks.


"Hey, guys! Can I play too?!"

In short, despite the seemingly-monolithic entity that is Windows, Microsoft is actually facing, for the first time in a while, the very real possibility that someone might be able to make a substantial dent in its market share over the long term. At least, if things don't change. The company is already in a very distant last place among smartphone platforms that haven't given up (behind Blackberry, iOS, and Android).

The question is, what will Microsoft do to ensure its continued dominance? And how will its competitors attempt to bring down the beast?

It's All About The Services, Baby

A ubiquitous platform, available on everything from your desktop to your phone, your laptop to your tablet, is the goal. The tool to accomplish it, though, will be services and ecosystem tie-in. Consider how many people are getting into the habit of storing their contacts, calendars, music collections, etc. in iCloud or Google's servers. From that perspective, suddenly, things like this become obvious:


Windows has never had a built-in contact manager before. In fact, so rarely do people think of Microsoft as a provider of basic services like these that most of you didn't even realize the previous sentence was a blatant lie. Microsoft is looking to change that by putting things like the People app front and center. It's not the only one, either. Xbox Music is going to come bundled with every copy of Windows 8, and bring with it 30 million free, ad-supported songs. SkyDrive integration will be another major feature. Microsoft's weakness has always been the web, but with Windows 8, all those things your Live ID/Hotmail account/whatever they're calling it these days will finally have a home.

The future for platforms is services, not software. It's not enough for your operating system to let you run a contact manager you download yourself. "It should just work" is the new mantra. Right now, I for one have all of my contacts, my email, my documents, my videos and everything else I use on a regular basis tied up in Google services. Chances are, you also have a lot of data with various companies that you don't want to have to move. These are great value adds for you, the consumer. They're also weapons, aimed directly at your favorite company's competitors.


Possible the biggest new feature of Windows 8.

To that end, Google has a very, very strong advantage. This is the main reason for Google+, by the way. Mountain View recognizes that having the OS makes you a dumb pipe for software. The Play Store, the social network, and the consolidation of all of its services is an effort to build its own walled garden (admittedly with pretty wide-open gates). In this area, the company has a strong lead over Microsoft and a positively skyrocketing mindshare.

So, Is Gartner Right Or Wrong?

For all intents and purposes Gartner is probably "wrong." Even if Android phones and tablets end up outnumbering some combination of Windows desktops, tablets, and phones (it's really unclear which platforms are included or excluded in the numbers), the analysts are making an educated guess at best and blind faith assumptions at worst.

The trouble is, these analyses always take into account current trends without factoring in unknowns (because how could they?). What if Google merges Chrome OS with Android and launches a line of Nexus Books? What if Apple creates a $600 laptop? What if—and this is totally out there, but hear me out—people actually like Windows 8? There is a lot that can happen, even more factors that aren't very well-defined, and all of this analysis is coming from a company that believes wearable smart electronics like watches, shoes, and tattoos will be a $10 billion industry by 2016.

Are these the electronic pants Gartner thinks will be selling so much by 2016? If so, sign me up.

It's also worth pointing out that one of those unpredictable fundamental shifts is required for any of Gartner's doom-and-gloom predictions to matter. Either Microsoft has to start selling a ton more phones and tablets, Google has to enter the desktop market, or the entire world has to give up on PCs entirely (very unlikely) for the conclusion to matter much.

However, if you're wondering if Windows and Android are going to go head-to-head in the coming years, I'd put my money on yes. The pieces are all in place and the players are circling each other. There is a lot on the line now. None of these three companies are going to back down, and their ultimate goal is nothing short of being the name on every smart device you own. It's just a matter of who can unify their desktop, mobile, and web platforms in the best way possible.

Eric Ravenscraft
Eric is a snarky technophile with a taste for the unusual. When he's not obsessing about Android, you can usually find him obsessing about movies, psychology, or the perfect energy drink. Eric weaves his own special blend of snark, satire, and comedy into all his articles.

  • http://richworks.in Richie

    "What if Apple creates a $600 laptop?"

    Haha, never gonna happen. Take my word for it...

    • Sarah Puls

      That was the first thing that went through my head, too, when reading that line. That's crazier than people liking Win8

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001144455023 Michael J Carroll

      I was always Windows-only until I was forced to temporarily use Linux, and honestly, I loved it. It was so easy to use and a lot stronger of an OS than Windows.

      • Gav456

        I've always been "Windows only" but since i quit WoW, I ditched the pc because it's so much easier to go phone/tablet. I can't wait till Google launches something tangible in the way of a desktop os. I swear by android now and can't imagine using anything else.
        Btw, what happened to phones being able to dual-boot android/Linux so you can use your phone as a desktop? I'd be into that! =D

        • Nicholas Loomans

          Google desktop OS = Chrome OS.
          Ubuntu is still doing things with mobile, as are KDE via Plasma Active.

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001144455023 Michael J Carroll

            He's thinking of something more widely adapted and more complete. ChromeOS still has a long way to go for it to be used widely.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1501675804 Jake Lee

    If it comes down to "Who can create the most complete ecosystem?", it's not even a competition. Google have fingers in pretty much every pie imaginable, in that I could easily only use Google technology all day. They certainly have the web + are strongly taking mobile, and that's 2/3.

  • http://profiles.google.com/kwillsrepsbk Kevin Williams

    this can happen if google finally decides to merge android and chrome os together..chrome os is a nice concept but it's failing to catch on as fast..merge it with android, have the desktop be android customizable, add a chromium page to the play store and you'll have a great OS right there

    • Matti

      I share your sentiments. One way might be something similar to what Ubuntu showed off some time ago. Have Android on the phone, but put in on a dock (or maybe wifi-direct) that's connected to a monitor/TV and bluetooth mouse + keyboard and start-up Chrome OS. I think Google themselves previewed something like this a year or two ago, but the hardware wasn't quite ready yet. Now that handsets are getting faster quad-core processors, more RAM and better gfx chipsets, it should (in theory) be an achievable goal.

      • fixxmyhead

        that would be nice

  • http://twitter.com/ToysSamurai Toys Samurai

    Two things:

    1) People are buying multiple tablets now, not just because they want to, but they have to. The mobile computing industry is moving so fast that if you don't upgrade, you will be left behind. It's very true to the Android platform (as your OEMs update in a very slow pace), but it's also true to the iOS (Apple is keeping more and more new features on the new models only.) This fast pace development will inevitably slow down. Will it be 2016? Probably not, but it will slow down.

    2) I don't see how the Android OS and iOS can be evolved into a productivity platform. Both of them are designed to be an OS for content consumption. Can you imagine someone using Android on a 27" monitor to do image editing? I can't. As long as Android is also an OS for ~4" - 5" phone and ~7" to 10" tablet, it probably will never be good for a big monitor. Sure, Google or Apple can do something so that there's a different UX on a bigger screen, but the experience would be so different that I am not sure you can still call them the Android or iOS we know today. If that happens, it's because the mobile OS is graduating into something else. But I doubt that the analysts are thinking about that -- they are usually the kind who just look at the mobile OS of today, check their growth rate and make a bold prediction.

    • http://fnords.org/ Markoff Chaney

      "Can you imagine someone using Android on a 27" monitor to do image editing? I can't."

      It's not that hard to imagine, as long as some good editing software becomes available for Android. Instead of working on a PC with a Wacom tablet you could have Photoshop (or similar) running on your Android tablet, which is connected wirelessly to a keyboard, mouse, and monitor. You could use the monitor as your main display while using the tablet with S-Pen to manipulate the image like a Wacom tablet. When your finished, you use the tablet to watch videos on your commute home. Sounds pretty awesome to me.

      • John O’Connor

        I already do this with my note 10.1 on a 55" HD screen with PS Touch(not as feature rich as the desktop variant yet.) it is good for collaborative projects where input on the final design needs to be seen while by many while still in progress.

        • http://fnords.org/ Markoff Chaney

          I use PST as well and I love it. It's not a desktop PS replacement, but you get a lot for $12.00.

      • Jak

        There are more uses for a desktop than image editing. Everything that is done in my office is through a combination of spreadsheets and databases. Where is the replacement for Excel, Access and SQL?
        The salesmen want iPads but we have no use for converting everything because they will not work well enough all our documents.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dcbogdan Bogdan Dumitru

    Why wouldn't you trust Gartner? I mean their 2009 forecast for Q4 2012 said that Symbian will have a market share of 39% and WebOS 2.1% with a total market of 522 Milion units. That's pretty close, isn't it? :)))

  • jammer

    I'm planning to get a Windows 8 pro tablet and I'll at least attempt to use their app store for the not-called-Metro interface.

  • Matti

    What I really want to see is more Android-related companies and people turning a profit. Market share can only go so far. It has to be profitable for Google, manufacturers and developers.

    Having said that, I also hope that more players find success in the smartphone/slate/embedded market, specifically Jolla and Firefox. More competition is always good.

    As for desktop use, Windows is a non-factor for me. Last version I used was Win98. Currently run OpenBSD on my main desktop, OS X in the office, and Linux on the netbook.

    • John O’Connor

      I would venture to say that it has been profitable for manufacturers of devices such as phones and tablets, the app developers for their applications and yes even google (with their ad revenue from services provided.)

      I fail to see who is not turning a profit on this revenue model.

      • Matti

        Uhm... other than Samsung, all Android OEM's have been struggling to break even. Nobody knows about Google, but I'd wager they still make more ad revenue from gullible iOS users. As for developers, some might be making a lot, but most still see iOS as a more lucrative (and easier to develop for) ecosystem because the users don't demand as much free stuff as their Android counterparts, plus there's also less piracy over there.

  • Lefaid

    Honestly, I see this competition as less to do with Google building Android up to the level of being a desktop replacement as we understand it and more as Microsoft dumbing down the idea of a desktop to the point where you can look at iOS and Android and see them as real competitors.

    I also think Microsoft is more concerned with iOS and the iPad then they are with Android. They see Apple making a ton of money with a closed OS and what to try to do the same themselves.

    • Freak4Dell

      Agreed...it's really sad what Microsoft is doing to Windows. I just hope that the market shows them that we don't need a dumbed down desktop, and they do a 180.

  • Sarah Puls

    I'd love to have an Android-based OS on a laptop or desktop. I don't suppose it's all that far off, really. Having been a beta Chromebook tester and an Android fan for a long time, I can really get behind this idea. If Google could swing the Android back end + the apps, ChromiumOS speed, and the functionality of a full desktop UI (task bar, notification bar, etc) and make it more mouse/trackpad navigable...yeah... I can very well see beefing up Android enough for notebooks. They just need that perfect mix of offline work/storage and online work.

  • kris s.

    I say a Google gaming console w/Android of course that's strong enough to compete with the Xbox, PlayStation and Wii couldn't hurt either. I know there's the Ouya but I just don't feel its gonna be on the level of the other 3.

    • Alex Murphy

      PS4 could definitely have Android :-)

  • Andy_in_Indy

    I watched the Windows 8 launch and listened to Steve Balmer talk about windows 8 the same way the the Android x86 has talked about Android for years. Someone at Microsoft realized a few years ago that Android was the way of the future. It was processor and form factor agnostic, and the apps themselves could be used used across the different form factors. Until Windows 8/RT, there was no other system that could do that. If Google had realized what it had two years ago when the Android x86 developers started moving this to laptops and desktops, they could have crushed Microsoft and Apple with the lead they had. Instead, Microsoft has used this time to its own advantage while Google focused on Chrome. Luckily, it will take Apple at least 2 years to catch up even it if wakes up right now.

    • Alex Murphy

      Everything you just said is under the assumption that Windows 8 will actually be a hit...we'll have to see.

  • diaiem

    Nice article. Well written and interesting. Goodjob.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/eric-ravenscraft/ Eric Ravenscraft


  • http://twitter.com/JaytonGarnett Jayton Garnett

    I don't see what people don't like about Windows 8. Use it like you would Windows 7 to get 'real work done', use the Start Screen to have fun. Best of both worlds. As an IT worker I've been testing, using and abusing it since Release Preview.

    As a geek, I've also been using it at home since Release Preview, my really really non-geeky wife really likes it too - I'm unashamedly in love with it. For work and play. When I use Windows 7 it seems a little old now, but still more than usable. Just wish I had the money for a Surface! Oh well the review unit at work will do :)

    PS: I still love Android and the community, don't worry !

    • GraveUypo

      from what i've seen it's the worst of both worse + 30% tax on software. that's a pretty good reason not to like it

  • Freak4Dell

    I think it's quite possible that this prediction is right, at least as far as numbers go. As you pointed out, an average family may have a mobile device for everyone (and let's say it run Android, for the sake of this article), but only one or two computers. So yeah, it's possible.

    However, as you also pointed out, the two are not comparable at all. Sure, they're both OSes, just like cars and planes are both means of transportation. There are more cars than planes, but most people don't choose to use a car to go from California to New York. Android and Windows are used in completely different ways, and I don't see that changing. Sure, some people, in an effort to be cool or trendy (or because they're just masochists), will tell you that their phones and tablets have replaced their PCs, but the fact of the matter is that a PC (running Windows, OSX, or Linux) is much more capable than a mobile device, and will continue to be for some time. There isn't a single thing that my phone or tablet can do that my computer can, but the opposite isn't true, at least not without making things overly complicated.

  • tBs_Battousai

    Does anyone have a chromeOS virtual machine ( VMware or virtual box) that I can grab a copy of? I'd love to buy a cromebox but would love to try it first before handing over my hard earned...

    • Freak4Dell

      Dude...it's seriously just a modified browser. It has a built in file explorer to help you locate the files on the SSD and external drives, but other than that, there's really nothing that you couldn't get on any computer with Chrome and the apps/extensions for Chrome.

      • rcrow490

        It also has music and video players, and a photo viewer.

  • GraveUypo

    i still see tablets and phones as "i'm not near my computer so this will do" devices.
    it's just not the same thing without a keyboard and mouse and a comfortable chair and desk

  • http://codytoombs.wordpress.com/ Cody Toombs

    I agree and disagree with many points here, and I might come back to get into some of that...But I just wanted to give a huge thumbs up to the clip from The IT Crowd :)

    I really miss that show...

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/eric-ravenscraft/ Eric Ravenscraft

      At least there's one thing we can all agree on.

  • ikaruga

    Install android with a cd? You guys ever heard of Android x86?i use it all the time on my net book

  • Sootie

    With cloud based computing it doesn't make any difference what os your "desktop" has so I think it is a completely realistic possibility for android to overtake microsoft. What difference does it make to you if your productivity application (word processor, photo shop, video editor etc) runs on your local computer or on a data center somewhere?

    The company I work for has about 200 employee's working across 3 sites in australia (soon to be a lot more over alot more) and we already have anywhere, anytime, any device access to everything, we are using citrix xenapp to fill in some gaps where programs we need to run have not yet moved into the cloud but all of our email, instant communication and intranet is already hosted in the cloud by microsoft themselves.

    The actual bit you interact with is of no importance anymore everything is heading towards who can have the most people on their cloud services as you mention in the article above.

    There will obviously always be a market for someone to sell devices for people to interact with but these devices will just get cheaper and better as more processing is moved off them and into the cloud.

  • Djones

    I'll bet we see a whole new type of lawsuits from Microsoft if Android does go this desktop direction. I wonder if Google would risk that again.

  • http://uncensored.citadel.org/ IGnatius T Foobar

    Google ought to work on making the full catalog of Android apps work inside the desktop version of Chrome for Linux, Mac, and Windows. It would be the fastest way to throw a stick into the spokes of Windows 8.

    • Dominic Stone

      I agree, if Google could figure a way of running Android apps within the Chrome browser it would be the most effective way of merging Android and Chrome OS. It would be the ultimate hardware agnostic OS and would be very difficult for Apple or Microsoft to compete against. I really hope this is what they are planning as Chrome is an incredibly popular browser.

  • rcrow490

    One of the most well thought-out and written articles I've read in a long time.
    Just an observation about Android and Chrome OS merging: As a user of the original Google Chromebook, I have seen a few Android-style improvements to the OS.