Embracing Android

Is today's mobile market similar to operating system market of early 1990s?

In the early 1990s, I was an Amiga user and enthusiast, convinced that Commodore's well-regarded but poorly-selling personal computers were vastly superior to anything coming from Apple or the Microsoft/PC crowd. In fact, I was openly disdainful of Microsoft and its software at the time.

My first extensive experience with Windows came with version 3.0, which was so slow on my wife's low-end IBM PS/1 (yes, PS/1) that you could actually watch menus draw in real time after you clicked the mouse. It wasn't just painful--it was unusable.

As the 1990's progressed, Commodore imploded and I had some technology decisions to make. It's hard to remember this now, given how the past two decades went, but in 1993-1994, it wasn't clear which platform would emerge victorious. (Even major software firms of the day were unsure, as I discussed recently in Predicting Microsoft's Future by Examining the Past.)

I really liked OS/2 and thought it had legs, technologically. But even then I could sense that IBM would never out-maneuver Microsoft, and after reluctantly writing off OS/2, I turned my attentions to Windows.

There were early signs of technological improvement in Windows for Workgroups, and of course the promise of NT and perhaps a merging of NT and Windows. And then Windows 95 arrived, in beta form as Windows 4.0. And I was hooked.

Here was an OS that seemed to include important technological and user-experience advances. It started me down a path that continues to this day, over 15 years later. By the end of 1995, I had co-authored three books about various Microsoft products, including Windows 95.

But back in the early days, Windows was, to me, a compromise. It lacked the singular vision of a company like Apple or Commodore that made both the hardware and the software. On the other hand, it was cheaper, and more diverse, and because of the in-fighting that happens naturally between PC makers, it also offered more choice, lower prices, and quicker advances.

But until Windows 95 arrived, this was all mostly theory. As far as I was concerned, Windows 3.x was a mess, quirky and illogical. Chaotic. Inferior.

Today, a decade and a half later, we face a similar period of uncertainty. The market has changed, however, from lumbering, heavy desktop PCs to tiny, thin, and light mobile devices. And it's changed from desktop OSs like Windows and OS/2 to mobile OSs like iOS and Android.

As with the mid-1990's, the world is changing and I now have some technology decisions to make. And so do you. And this time, if anything, the stakes are even higher because personal technology isn't a nicety or a luxury, it's a necessity, a core component of our personal and work lives. And as we come to rely increasingly on these highly mobile platforms, it's more important than ever to choose correctly.

That said, I'm not sure that the mobile computing market of the future will exactly mimic the PC market that preceded it. In fact, I'm pretty sure it won't.

But it's interesting to me how many obvious parallels there are between the two. For example, after an early burst of innovation from Apple, the market is now coalescing around a barbarian horde of cheaper, more diverse, clones. But this time it's Android, not the Windows-based PC, that's the disrupter. And it's iOS, not the Mac, that's being displaced.

I've been pretty dismissive of Android because I feel that this system is nothing more than a knockoff of other multi-touch mobile systems that preceded it, particularly iOS. I don't like that Android has stolen from others and then given away the result, and is not held accountable for this behavior. And I haven't seen a single original idea anywhere in Android. Yes, I've looked.

What's funny about this is that this is exactly the stance I originally took about Windows, almost exactly 20 years ago. I didn't understand why it was successful and somewhat resented that consumers and businesses were choosing it over systems that I thought were more elegant, original, and usable.

But I'm a pragmatist, and perhaps too logical when it comes to this stuff. And in the spirit of the coming New Year's holiday, I'm resolving to give Android a chance.

As with Windows, coincidentally this will start with version 4.0, which from the early peeks I've seen of Android 4 appears to finally offer some fresh and unique ideas. And as with the situation almost two decades ago, I'll be giving equal time to the competition--in this case, Android, iOS, Windows Phone instead of Windows, Mac, and OS/2---to see which make the most sense for more in-depth coverage going forward.

My guess, my gut feeling, is that it won't be possible to pick just one. And in this way the mobile computing market will not mimic the past, with the market of the future split, if not evenly then nearly so, between Android, iOS, and perhaps one other player.

I hope that's Windows and/or Windows Phone, but I'm not going to get emotional about it. And if Microsoft is smart, neither will it: I expect to see native iOS and Android versions of Microsoft Office appear before this time next year.

May the best platforms win. Indeed, I expect that Android will even be one of them.

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