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Is Android the new Windows?

24 Oct 2013

This is my editorial for the Winter 2013 issue of HardCopy magazine:

Microsoft Windows 3.0

There are two distinct sides to the computer industry. On one sit the hardware manufacturers. For them, each unit produced costs money to make and money to ship, and the industry operates in much the same way as that of the car or the TV. For the past decade, particularly since Apple adopted the Intel architecture, there has been little to distinguish one manufacturer’s product from another, which means a greater reliance on brand awareness. However competition is fierce and it is difficult for one brand to dominate the market for long. Apple only succeeded in carving a niche by firmly establishing itself early on as a supplier of luxury goods at premium prices.

On the other side are two industries that have benefited from hitherto unprecedented economies of scale, namely those involved in software and the silicon chip. Developing something like an Intel i7 Core processor or a modern operating system is extremely costly. Against that the cost of creating a copy, or even millions of copies, is insignificant – and the more copies you create, the thinner that initial investment gets spread.

This is why Windows dominates the desktop, as once a certain threshold is reached, competition becomes all but impossible. For Microsoft the threshold was reached in 1990 with the launch of Windows 3.0. On that date, any chance of an alternative succeeding on the desktop died.

It’s important to realise that Windows did not get into this position because it was the best on offer. There were plenty who felt, with considerable justification, that the Apple Mac offered something better, or that Linux was both cheaper and more stable. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that both the software industry and the customer benefited hugely from having a single platform dominate the market. For application developers it meant being able to reach most of their customers with a single release: for customers it meant being able to share files with most of their friends and colleagues without worrying about format incompatibilities.

Of course everything changed when mobile devices became viable. Apple transformed the market with first the iPhone and then the iPad. Microsoft struggled with Windows Mobile for a while, only to return later with Windows Phone which now seems to be tied fairly firmly to Nokia hardware.

And then of course there’s Android, an open source operating system owned by Google. According to a recent IDC survey, Android was running on over 70 per cent of the smartphones sold in the final three months of 2012. Apple iOS accounted for 21 per cent, down from 23 per cent the previous year, while Windows Phone and Windows Mobile accounted for just 2.6 per cent, although this was an improvement on the 1.5 per cent achieved the year before. So is Android on its way to becoming the Windows of the mobile market?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 24 Oct 2013 22:15

    Just to illustrate the similarity between Android and early (some not so early, too) versions of Windows, originally I wrote this post about an hour ago on my Android device – it crashed – and I have now come back to write it again. Fingers crossed this time!

    Saying that, I still prefer the freedom Android gives me to the buttoned-down OS on my iPhone. Admittedly the iPhone is great in lots of ways, but it doesn’t allow me to do lots of things I would dearly like to do. I need to have access to the file system. Don’t ask me why, I just do. Android opens that up for me. It also allows more freedom for third-party developers, which is overally slightly more of a blessing than a curse.

    Very good points raised in your article, and judging by the numbers it does seem headed towards domination. However, I do think Apple will maintain more market share this time than in the OS wars of the 90s. It’s a bigger market as well, and many consumers are almost ‘locked in’ to the platform after investing in so many apps and itunes.

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  2. 25 Oct 2013 11:49

    Thanks for your comment, and I agree, Apple in particular is very good at ‘locking in’ users to the iOS platform. Personally I use a Windows Phone as I find the UI more consistent than Android and I like the way it works with all my other Windows-based machines. The situation with Android is particularly interesting as, unlike Windows, it’s open source.

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