Android Rising

So I was leisurely wading through my news intake when I stumbled upon this (which is oddly reminiscent of another unusual gadget I linked to only yesterday) and had an epiphany.

Never mind that they’ll probably get sued into pulp. The cognitive dissonance what overcame me while looking at the picture was abruptly shattered by an intriguing thought: What if Android (gasp) became the dominant mass-market platform, not necessarily on mobile, but across the board?

Never mind phones or tablets. Never mind paradigm shifts in computing, and toss the ugly brute named “fragmentation” out the window for a few minutes. He’ll be back, with a vengeance.

Think about it for a second - a platform for which you can write intrinsically portable apps (“Java without the zealots”, as a friend used to say, before he actually had to write apps for it), that has widespread adoption, and which has finally (in Android 4.0) become more than marginally usable.

And, also, that works reasonably well on a netbook. In fact, tremendously better. I’ve been running Android for x86 on a netbook for a bit, and the thing performs vastly better (and is simpler and easier to use) than when running stock Linux or Windows - so much so, that I’ve been wondering why Google keeps flogging Chrome OS when they could just build a decent Android business app portfolio, and…

Oh, wait.

Okay, that’s just conspiracy theory fodder. But I happen to own a copy of QuickOffice Pro (the presentation app works pretty well on the iPad), and with a few tweaks, you could probably achieve 90% of what you’d use a “regular” computer for with it (I’d rate it at 85% right now, and I’m pretty demanding).

Normal human beings would probably never need anything else provided it shipped with the same fonts and (obviously) printed output was undistinguishable from the status quo.

But the status quo is Windows, I hear you say. Because everything runs on Windows, and people are used to the interface, and…

Oh, right.

As it happens, Android’s UI aesthetic is, at long last, something you can actually write home about - Ice Cream Sandwich’s blue on black outlines, decent system font and consistent placement of UI elements (at least on core OS options and most Google apps) make it a lot more visually pleasing and much less of a confusing experience than any other pre-4.x version (including the random mess that 3.x turned out to be)1.

And yes, Android sometimes feels rather like using Windows 3.x applications under Windows 7 (or, more to the point, Windows 8’s Metro) - transitions between apps are jarring not due to differentiation between app developers, but largely due to lack of standards.

But that’s not that much of a problem as I’m betting Metro will turn out to be for the average person.

So as Windows gets essentially dumbed down to run on tablets that require fans (of the spinning, blowing persuasion - like human fans, blowing out hot air), Android already works rather well across the board - of course it’s somewhat ridiculous to install it on a desktop computer (for now, at least), but the average consumer (that elusive and wily beast that is invisible to power users but a prime target for retailers) isn’t exactly lining up to buy desktops these days.

And yes, ARM devices aren’t exactly powerhouses. But most people waste all the power and CPU cycles they acquired with their pricey laptops surfing the Internet or entering text, and were it not for insanely bloated software (ahem), it could probably be argued that we’d have reached the “fast enough” stage already2.

Furthermore, Android gets multitasking - or, rather, effortless task switching - mostly right, and in a way that I think users are comfortable with3. In fact, I wish Apple would realize that most common tasks on any computing device require task switching that is at least that frictionless and stopped hobbling iOS - maybe in a week they’ll have that sorted out.

Back to the case in point, though.

Consider an off-the-wall scenario - what if Android started showing up regularly on netbooks (and whatever remainder of the tablet market the iPad leaves standing), people start porting more business apps across (the Android marketplace lacks finesse and feels more like bric-a-brac than a selection of fine merchandise, but it’s already there), and, somehow, miraculously, it takes off?

Far-fetched? Of course. Now factor in all those extremely cheap “Android PCs” that are popping up everywhere. And the economic downturn. And the shift in computer usage patterns to more and more online activity, and simpler and more effective apps, etc.

It’s not hard to imagine Windows 8 adoption flagging. From there to suggesting that their market share might actually be systematically eroded by Android takes a leap of faith (and maybe half a decade of erratic strategies from both sides), but I’ve seen weirder things happen.

And I’m willing to bet that someone, somewhere, is actually losing sleep over it.

  1. Intents, however, are inherently unpredictable from a UI standpoint, because you never really know what is going to happen after you hit the “share” option - will you share the current URL, the page contents, the selection, what? ↩︎

  2. Yes, there are a few holes in this reasoning. Work with me here, nobody ever achieved anything by putting down new ideas. ↩︎

  3. Except for the asinine behavior of the “back” button, of course. My blood boils whenever I’m whisked away into its random, meaningless attempts at restoring my workflow. ↩︎

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