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.
* 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.
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
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:
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.
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.