Google has laid out a stunningly ambitious vision for Android, its operating system originally developed for smartphones.
Best described as “Android everywhere,” this effort will put the OS in lots of new places, powering a wide range of consumer devices. Consumers will be able to run the same basic apps whether they have a smartphone, smart watch or TV – and use Google’s services no matter what kind of gadget they’re on.
But it’s worth noting that Google’s not the first tech company with as broad a vision. Since around the turn of the century, Microsoft has had similar designs for Windows. It would run in everything from handheld devices to cars.
But Microsoft’s vision foundered; consumers and other companies didn’t want Windows everywhere.
Will Google have any better luck?
There’s no doubt that Google is serious about this idea, which took up most of its presentation to developers at the Google I/O conference. To get developers on board, since they will be crucial to the success of this effort, Google is rolling out new software tools that will help them customize their Android apps for these new devices.
And Google is doing something similar, altering the OS for all these gadgets. The interface for Android TV will look different from the one for Android Wear smart watches, not to mention Android smartphones. For now, Android Auto will support only navigation and music apps, not all the programs available.
It’s also clear why developers would be interested. The growth in smartphones and tablets is slowing. Branching into TVs and smart watches offers the possibility of giant, fast-growing new markets for years to come. Having all those devices run Android offers the promise that developers could write one app that could reach millions or even billions of consumers on whatever gadget they happen to be using at the time.
The big question is whether consumers – and electronics manufacturers – are any more interested in a Google-dominated world than they were in a Microsoft-dominated one.
Microsoft saw some early victories, but nothing close to its success with PCs. And many of those early successes proved fleeting.
Microsoft is still touting Windows Everywhere, but the slogan has almost become a parody of the company’s former ambitions, focusing mainly on trying to boost Microsoft’s pitiful share of the smartphone and tablet markets.
Fifteen years ago Microsoft was every bit as dominant as Google is now, perhaps more. But the company’s vision was undermined by factors such as competition, industry resistance and bad design. It turns out, for instance, that smartphones don’t need a “Start” button.
Google has several things in its favor. Microsoft’s early efforts at extending Windows were hampered by the vast disparity between PC chips and the processors used in other devices. Because of the dramatic advancement in mobile processor speeds, that’s much less of a problem for Google. And it has another advantage: In many ways, Google is following rather than leading the Android everywhere charge.
Android tablets were already on the market before Google released a tablet version of the software. Similarly, TV manufacturers built Android into televisions and set-top boxes even without a version tailored for TVs.
But I wonder whether, in the end, Google will have any more luck than Microsoft. It’s possible manufacturers will shun Android outside of phones and tablets as Google attempts to exercise more influence and control over it. And it’s unclear whether consumers want Android everywhere, especially if the software hasn’t been well-customized for particular devices. Few folks are likely to want to run Android apps on their PC if they don’t work well with a keyboard and trackpad.
That’s a lesson Apple seems focused on. Unlike Microsoft and Google, Apple understands that the way we interact with devices – and thus the software that powers them – has to be as distinct as the devices themselves.
Macs run OS X, designed for desktops. iPods run their own software. The iPhone and iPad run iOS, but the iPad’s version is customized for tablets. Apple TV runs a version of iOS that can’t even access the App Store.
While Apple, like Microsoft and Google, wants to interact with consumers with all sorts of different devices, it doesn’t believe one OS has to be on all gadgets. That vision may not be as all-encompassing as Android – or Windows – everywhere, but it may be more realistic.