Android vs Windows: Now the battle for the desktop really begins

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener: Android is really beginning to challenge Windows on the desktop - but this war will be long and drawn out and the conclusion far from certain.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

In an alternate universe, last week's CES was overflowing with Windows RT devices (and probably featured a keynote by a new Microsoft chief executive).

Alas, for Microsoft at least, in this universe, at CES it was the year Android desktops began to gain momentum — shaping up to be the first genuine threat to Windows' dominance of the desktop.

PC sales have been in decline for a number of years thanks to the rise of tablets and smartphones, most of which run Android.

How tech's giants lost the tablet and smartphone war, even if they don't know it yet

Next year (maybe even this year) more tablets will ship than PCs (325 million versus 268 million, according to Gartner) and smartphones will continue to dwarf both  — nearly two billion during 2014. And some 1.1 billion of those devices will be running Android, compared to 360 million Windows devices.

So it's no surprise that PC makers, desperately searching for new ways to generate sales (Charles Arthur at The Guardian has done some nice work on the current pressure on PC vendor revenues) are  experimenting with Android.

Microsoft, thanks to Windows Phone, Surface and the soon-to-be-completed acquisition of Nokia's hardware arm, is now a rival as much as an ally to the PC makers, a fact which has no doubt made them more willing to experiment with new operating systems than previously.

As ZDNet's Larry Dignan points out, Android could break through on the desktop as it has on mobile if the cost is right and security improves. There are plenty of hurdles in the way of Android becoming a real threat to Windows on the desktop, but it's still a headache for Microsoft. If people don't buy Windows, they probably won't buy Office either, and they're less likely to buy into the whole ecosystem from Windows Phone to Azure.

And the desktop is Windows' redoubt: that Android dares to advance upon it is reflection of how the battle of the tech ecosystems has gone so far.

Right now you might argue there is not a huge demand for Android on the desktop — but how deep is consumer loyalty to Windows anymore?

Consumers don't buy a PC because of Windows — they buy a device that can help them to do what they want to do. Most consumers aren't enthusiasts for particular operating systems: few seem to complain that their tablets don't run Windows, after all. They've historically bought Windows PCs because, until now, that was pretty much the only option. The positive experience they've had with Android tablets might make them more willing to try it out on the desktop.

If Android PCs become popular with consumers, they will start appearing in the office, too. 

Microsoft has tried to address the Android threat with Windows RT (with little succces so far) but it still has time to do better.

Even if consumers are seduced by Androids tablets and Chromebooks, Microsoft's core business customers will likely resist for a long time: most companies are too heavily invested in Microsoft throughout their infrastructure to make significant changes any time soon.

As such, the threat to Windows is one that could take as long as a decade to have a significant impact in the enterprise at least. In that time expect Windows to evolve significantly to do battle with the Android threat to its heartland.

But in the longer term which operating system is dominant on the desktop may be something of an irrelevance.

It's hard to see how PC sales will ever bounce back again; its time as the leading computer format is over. Consumers are much more comfortable with tablet-shaped devices: you can see this in the home, where the communal PC is still there to be used when needed but day-to-day people will use their own smartphones and tablets.

Is it really a huge stretch to see the same thing happening in the office? Could the PC ever become a bit like the workstation (or less charitably the photocopier, or the fax)? That is, something you need to have around the place — but not on every desk?

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

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