In the same week that Samsung came out with the most advanced Android smartphone ever, we heard that Intel and its partners were working on $200 Android laptops with Atom processors. Though it started as a phone OS and slowly moved to tablets, Android is ready to take on Windows as the desktop OS of choice. With its extensive ecosystem of apps, its highly customizable interface and multitasking prowess, Google’s open-source operating system provides a better PC user experience than Windows 8’s Modern UI.
Today, Android is the OS that provides vendors with the greatest opportunity to innovate and users with the best opportunity to get things done on a mobile device. Everyone from HP and Lenovo to the world’s tiniest Chinese vendors sells Android devices today in a wide variety of form factors with custom software and all kinds of hardware inside.
These days, we’re seeing fewer noteworthy Windows PCs, but in the Android world, we have everything from a 13-inch tablet to a 22-inch all-in-one and a 1-ounce mini PC. There are even a few really low-end Android netbooks already from such unheard of brands as Kocaso and iView.
While you can download more than a million apps from Google’s Play, search half a dozen other markets or sideload an apk on your own, you can only install Windows 8 apps if Microsoft has agreed to put them in its store. Android apps have deep access to many functions of the OS, but Windows 8 “Modern” apps have more limitations, particularly when they’re running in the background.
At the same time that Android vendors are making it easier to do many things at once with features like Samsung’s Multi Window Mode, LG’s QSlide floating windows and stock Android’s rich notifications area, Microsoft thinks that multitasking is passé. Windows 8’s Modern UI assumes you want to view just one full-screen app with part of a second app docked to the side and key information like the battery meter and a comprehensive list of notifications hidden from view. You don’t have to be a power user to want to see your Wi-Fi signal strength without entering a hidden menu.
If you want to conduct research in your Web browser for a report you’re writing in your word processor with additional information from an email you have open, you can still do that in Windows 8’s Desktop Mode. However, by putting the full-screen Modern UI front and center, Microsoft is not only making it more difficult to multitask today, it’s sharing a vision of the future where computing interfaces have less and less information visible at once. Some believe that Windows 9 won’t even have a Desktop Mode.
“When users can’t view several windows simultaneously, they must keep information from one window in short-term memory while they activate another window,” writes noted usability expert Jakob Nielsen. “This is problematic for two reasons. First, human short-term memory is notoriously weak, and second, the very task of having to manipulate a window—instead of simply glancing at one that’s already open—further taxes the user’s cognitive resources.”
The Android world understands this, which is why I wouldn’t be surprised to see Key Lime Pie come with actual windows built into the stock OS. If it has a superior multitasking experience, more flexibility for vendors to innovate and a rich ecosystem of hardware and software, Android is the new Windows. Microsoft should take note.