A flexible, customizable operating system that's farmed out to third-party hardware makers and dominates market share but not profits? You're not the only one experiencing déjà vu. The parallels of Android and Windows are striking. But can that which is unique about Android save it from the fate befalling Microsoft's stumbling OS?
Let's look at the similarities between the Android of today and the Windows 95 of ... '95:
- Android is a growing platform with endless form-factor diversity (or fragmentation, depending on how you look at it) and strong OEM support, just like Windows has had and still enjoys.
- Android's flexibility for users and developers created an explosion in app variety, but also an unruly app store with a growing issue with malware. The same was true of Windows during the early days of the Internet.
- Android, like Windows before it, followed Apple into its market by leaning on third-party hardware firms. The plan helped both to surpass Apple's hardware shipments. Android tablets currently outsell the iPad globally more than two to one.
- OEMs looking to boost per-device profit tweak the Android operating system and often cut at its daily functionality by over-skinning the platform among other similar issues. Windows PCs still suffer from the same issue, as OEMs pump them full of crappy bloatware before delivering them to consumers.
- Android devices are often cheaper than iOS units, but at the same time can compete at the higher price and quality tiers. Just as it has long been simple to pick up a cheap laptop that runs Windows, you can also spend untold sums on a gaming or media machine that can handle anything you throw at it if you want. That wasn't true with Mac, and it isn't true now with iOS. But if you want to buy a massive-screened Android you can.
Perhaps the most important point of the Android and Windows comparison is that of longevity. Windows has been around since 1985. Hardware-based operating systems last.
Just as computers have changed since 1985, so has Windows. And smartphones and tablets will change, too. But we still have PCs, and we'll still have smartphones and tablets in a decade. Android is currently using a similar strategy to Microsoft's Windows play to take over the hottest two segments in hardware and software.
People now say that, while Android has huge market share, it's iOS that is beloved and profitable. But if history repeats itself, the smartphone wars will be decided less by short-term profits and app figures, and more by who will control the smartphone world in five, 10 and 15 years. That's increasingly looking like Android.
And it's firmly ironic that Microsoft is currently working to build tablet and smartphone market share against Android, which is using its old playbook against it. If only Microsoft had taken its own advice sooner.