Microsoft has a killer advantage against Android on the desktop

Microsoft has a killer advantage against Android on the desktop

Summary: Might Android PCs simply be too much hassle to make work?

HP Android all-in-one
I'm not sure HP's PC-that-does-not-run-Windows has Microsoft that worried.

Now that CES is in full-flow, we know that Lenovo is pitching an Android PC desktop, and HP are pitching a whole bunch of different Android PC form factors including all-in-ones, a minitower, a detchable screen hybrid, and a traditional laptop.

My ZDNet colleague Steven J Vaughn-Nichols wrote a piece about whether an Android desktop could replace your Windows PC.

I'm sure it could, but the question is whether anyone will bother when buying a Windows PC for roughly the same amount of money.


About a year ago, I bought a Chromebook. Spoiler: I really liked it. The genius about a Chromebook is its simplicity. If you just want a screen and a keyboard for getting online and getting stuff done, Chromebooks have an awful lot going for them.

I'm regarded as being something of a techie geeky-type person, but I don't have much computer kit. I have one laptop, one tablet, and one smartphone. (OK, so I have a bunch of other kit that I used for testing when I'm undertaking client work, but the day-to-day stuff I use, I have one device of each type.)

The reason why I have one of each rather than a complex menagerie of devices to fiddle with is that I don't really like messing around with technology that much. I like it to work, and I like to be simple. With the Chromebook, although I really liked it, I got rid of it because I never switched the thing on. If I needed a device with a keyboard, I'd use my full laptop because the Chromebook would only ever do a subset of things that my laptop would do.

One experiment I did try with my Chromebook was to use it to remote desktop into a server in the cloud that had a full Windows virtual machine on it. This VM had my development environment and all the other tools on it that wouldn't run on the Chromebook. It didn't work very well -- principally because the user experience provided was too slow and laggy.

I could have reengineered my entire life to accommodate both a Chromebook and my full laptop but -- well, I'd have to seriously ask myself "why?"

The point of all of this is that on one hand we have something that out of the box works really well and is minimal hassle (the full laptop), and the other hand we have something that I had to faff around with and make work (the Chromebook).


Android PCs are always going to suffer in that whatever you do with them, you're always going to be "cutting against the grain", compared to Windows. Every little effort you make to do something a little bit outside of the expected use cases will be ten times harder on Android.

This "hassle factor" is Microsoft's big advantage when we look at market pressures from post-PC operating systems trying to encroach into the PC universe. Windows is a phenomenally good PC operating system. Android, and Chrome OS, are great post-PC operating systems, but poor PC operating systems.

There are four different types of people who will try to use Android as a desktop operating system to replace Windows, or OS X.

  • The first sort will be technologists who want to realise some vision. They have a deep understanding of PCs and are willing to tinker with an Android PC to make it work in a way that, to them, seems cool. (I'm not trying to be derogatory towards technologists here -- I fully intend to buy an Android PC to experience it firsthand and I'm sure I'll enjoy doing so.)

  • The second sort will be friends and families of technologists whom the technologist has convinced that an Android PC is a better bet than a Windows PC for whatever reason. As my ZDNet colleague James Kendrick has written before,post-PC devices can work really well for simplifying the IT that less-technical family members have to deal with.

  • The third sort will be people who don't know what they're buying, and will buy an Android PC without knowing what they're getting into.

  • The fourth sort will be IT managers who believe deploying Android PCs will yield some advantage over an equivalent deployment of Windows PCs.

At this point, I'm not convinced there's a strong "winning" story in any of these four camps. Technologists tend to enjoy projects even if they are ultimately successful or not (because playing with technology is always cool). For the friends and family, it might work OK, but whoever is driving that project will have to be prepared for that unavoidable "How do I install Photoshop on this?" type call. For the accidental buyer, it's never going to go well. And for the IT manager -- it could go either way depending on their objectives.

But if you look at Windows, whatever you're looking to do always works.


For the majority of normal customers in the market, there is no "PC market", there is a "Windows market". If it looks like a PC -- and those Android PCs from Lenovo and HP sure do look like PCs -- any customer expectation is going to be that they are equivalent to, and behave like Windows PCs.

But they won't behave as such. As such, feel free to either expect them not to sell, or to sell and have extremely high rates of return.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topic: PCs

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  • We've already seen...

    ... how long-time Windows developers who were at first enthusiastic about Win8/WinRT settle into a grumpy stupor month by month as reality set in. If the desktop is legacy and WinRT the future as Microsoft insists then Android on the desktop starts to look better and better.

    A piece piece of the puzzle here is Microsoft's decision to follow a walled-garden approach to application deployment. This certainly has some advantages, but it can become a cross to bear for a lot of people. While a concession to large enterprise users was made in terms of "in house app store" capabilities this isn't really practical except for a handful of corporate-blessed applications, typically overhead stuff like HR/time-keeping, etc. For everything else, especially LOB development (even in large companies) Microsoft leaves you standing, hat in hand, suggesting you spend the time, money, and effort to somehow get your in house application onto their public Store.

    This also hits a lot of general ISV, shareware, freeware, small contractor, and hobby development square in the gut as well.

    Microsoft could change this by moving to a more open deployment model like Android has. Yes, this opens things up to more malware, no question about it. But what's more useful? A system with no software or one with a higher risk of malware?

    If Microsoft pushes the WinRT platform further and deprecates or even locks down the desktop in the name of "the future" and "security" things get even worse. If there isn't any real risk of this happening then why are so many developers shrugging, accepting .Net as legacy, and investigating things like JavaScript as their future?
    • Windows is dying

      Windows PC sales are plummeting. It's a dying platform.

      We are in a transition period, moving into the Post PC era.

      While you might worry about installing Photoshop or Microsoft Word now, these are software from the previous era. The tables are turning.

      While usage of Microsoft Windows plummets, usage of Android surges ahead. We can see where this is headed. The next era is Android's.
      • Windows PC sales are plummeting?

        Not according to recent numbers presented here.

        But you keep telling yourself that which lets you sleep at night.
        • Yes. Windows sales are in a dive

          ZDNet Dec 2, 2013

          While there are rises and falls on any particular month, if you look at Windows PC sales over a year or more you can see that they are in steep decline.

          Windows is a platform in decline, and I think its very existence will be challenged in the years ahead.

          This is Android's era, so it's no surprise that Android is now upscaling into devices with big screens, mice and keyboards.

          IT managers need to consider where all this is headed.
          • Declining?

            Yes, dying, NO!
          • Death is inevitable

            Dying, yes. It is just a question of time. Windows and Microsoft are not immortal and are demonstrating that they are increasingly vulnerable to winning a Darwin award.

            Paradigms change and Microsoft is trying to leverage the old one and delay the new one while others are already creating it. Their motto should be "Always behind the curve." And what they have come up with is as ugly as sin and people do not want it. People who sell computers find that Windows 8 is a hard sell.
          • darwin approves of microsoft

            given all the great reception of windows 8.1 with just a few evolutionary touches, it seems you're assuming incorrectly that they will do nothing. windows sales are on an uptrend and remember: windows 7 is windows 8 main competitor. not Linux or android.
          • Ummm

            So you are comparing PC sales (exclusive of smartphones) to mobile device sales (inclusive)? That's...brilliant...

            You do realize the driving force of Android globally are dirt cheap devices in poverty-stricken areas/countries.
          • Yes ..

            There are Billions of people out there that cannot afford an expensive device, and that is where Android phones/Chromebooks and now Android based PC's come in to play ..
            If most of the population cannot afford expensive things, then why not market a android ecosystem to them?
            You will win the contest by shear numbers ..
            The reason the project '1 laptop per child' did not go for Windows, was because of the cost .. when most of the world cannot pay the high price that M$ wants they go to another OS that is dirt cheap ... Linux
            Android follows in the same steps ... tho it is not free (per say) it is a great ecosystem for a very cheap cost!

            And I am not sure what the Hell Matt is talking about in his crazy little blog? His title states 'MS has a killer advantage over Android on the desktop', but he babels on about Chromebooks! Chromebooks are NOT Android! tho he seems to think that they are the same thing ... not sure why...
            Matt, just so you aware, the rumor on the street is that Android apps are coming to Win8 (via virtualization) ...
            Android and MS, tho they hate each other are going to be friends via dual boot scenarios on lots of machines in the coming yr or so .. time to get used to seeing the little green guy on more and more devices ...
          • LOL

            Since LINUX is free why would a poor country buy Android desktops that cost more?
          • Roughly The Same Cost...

            "I'm sure it could, but the question is whether anyone will bother when buying a Windows PC for roughly the same amount of money."

            Where's all the money that these folks will save that they don't have?

            Wasn't the 1 laptop per child Linux-based?
          • Windows sales

            What we are seeing is a diversification of the computing market. Windows PC are selling in lower numbers not because Windows is dying but simply because users have refined their usage of computing devices. We do not necessarily need a full power PC anymore because tablets can now do almost as much in a simpler form. The real competitor to PC or Desktop computers as whole is the iPad and the other tablets that can fulfill pretty much all the needs of 75% of computing device users.
            Windows will remain around for many more years as a basis for full featured software that can do a lot more than apps from a market. The Cloud can do a lot of thing but It is not an answer to every need.
          • Finally

            Well said NBTS. You have offered the voice of reason in this irrational forum.
          • and tablets will evolve into computers

            This generation of mobile devices is still very immature and developing. Current tablets that do "most" of what a user needs, which is a vulnerability in itself.

            If the current tablets can't evolve to do ALL of what a user needs, then something else will come along and replace them. Just like they have disrupted traditional PCs by offering a more mobile experience.

            The tradeoffs in functionality were mainly due to limitations of hardware, which no longer exist. There simply is no reason anymore that tablets should be treated as devices that can do "most" of what users need.

            Who really wants two separate devices that neither offer a complete solution to their needs and forces users to hopscotch back and forth between them to get done all the things they want to do?

            The biggest limitation of tablets (android/iOS/WindowsRT) is the operating system. Putting those operating systems on desktop hardware doesn't make them more functional. If anything it will just highlight their shortcommings as people have higher expectations out of what a desktop should deliver.
          • "and tablets will evolve into computers "

            But isn't that a Surface Pro? It has hardly been a roaring success!
          • Dying??

            It's not the sales numbers, sales indicate that people only buys a fewer new windows machine, but that doesn't mean they don't use their old windows machine!!
            PC's lifetime are more than tablets and mobile phones, also, due to technology boundary, they are not changing much, a windows XP machine can do all the things you can do in a windows 8 machine except the user experience, so why replacing it? while an iphone 5s is a way more different from Iphone 1 or Iphone 2.
            ppl are still using their windows Pc's, windows 8 is competing not with MAC OS or linux, it's competing with old version of itself (Windows XP, and windows 7).
          • While true, does it matter?

            People are definitely hanging on to their old PCs longer. And from the user and business perspective, why buy a new thing if the one you have does the job just dandy? Most of the work that most users do on a PC was done well 10+ years ago. Which explains the death grip some users have on XP.

            That's part of it. The other part is that Microsoft broke faith with the users, and the users noticed. Vista was an IS made just fir Microsoft's ambitions. The decade long habit of following wherever Microsoft lead was strained and broken by Vista. And never put back together again, as millions stuck with XP and actually did better than those switching to and dealing with Vista. So users learned the truth: upgrades really are optional.

            This IS bad for Microsoft, and in multiple ways. Primarily, since they only make money on software sales, it doesn't take a genius to realize that fewer sales means less income. Microsoft's over-the-top rush to several tablet OS versions is a clear admission that they see this as a problem. And they also see the secondary problem: not having to spend money on new Windows computers, software, and training has allowed compani3s and individuals to explore alternate computing platforms. Some of those are sticking.
          • PC desktops.

            Just a short comment. Aren't "desktop PC's" the area that's in decline? Aren't Laptops doing just fine?
          • android sales have tanked

            you point to android as being a real alternative yet sales of devices like transformer from asus have been so poor it points to the inevitable: android is ok on a phone, it has flopped outside of it. consumers saw it and said no.

            The android era is limited to phones, nothing else.
          • Uh, No.

            PC sales are declining and have been for years. The sales of Windows PCs aren't declining. You can pretend all you want if that makes you feel better, though. Most thinking people, however, actually think. You misread facts and try to twist them to fit your own little worldview. Did you manage to complete grades k-12?