The next OS battle: Windows vs iOS vs Android

4th Jul 2011 | 11:34

The next OS battle: Windows vs iOS vs Android

Microsoft, Apple and Google choose their weapons

The next OS battle

Steve Jobs calls it the post-PC era. For Google, it's all about the cloud. Microsoft calls it the PC-plus era.

The firms use different terms and have different approaches, but they're talking about the same thing: a radically different kind of computing where the PC is no longer the centre of the universe.

Computing will be on phones, in tablets, in TVs and even in our cars, and the battle will soon begin: iOS 5, Android 4 and Windows 8 in a battle for the very future of computing.

Whose side are you on?

Choose your own adventure

The lines between traditional PCs and mobile devices are getting distinctly blurry. Apple is beginning to merge iOS and OS X, Windows 8 looks awfully similar to Windows Phone and will even run on ARM devices, while the unified codebase of Android 4.0 - bringing tablets and smartphones together in perfect harmony - suggests a merger of Android and the Chrome OS in the not too distant future.

There's more to it than touchscreen phones and tablets, though. iOS has AirPlay for media streaming, Google TV is rumoured to be coming to Android and Microsoft has its Media Center and Xbox Live services.

With HDMI output, growing games libraries and access to a wealth of online content - including new services such as OnLive, which promises to use streaming to deliver PC-quality gaming without the PC - mobile devices have their eye on your TV and games consoles too.

They're even coming for your cars: Saab has unveiled an Android-based in-car entertainment system, Ford has been sticking Windows into cars for years and Volkswagen's Microbus Bulli concept uses an iPad for key systems including navigation, communication and even climate control.

Using an iPad is rather unrealistic, but there's no reason why firms couldn't use popular smartphones to do something very similar.

Android in saab

ANDROID AUTO: Saab has turned to Android for its in-car system. Could a smartphone dock do the same job?

All of these devices will be linked via the internet. Apple sees the link as a background one, with apps automatically saving and sharing files with one another. Google sees the internet as the place where software actually lives. And Microsoft sees it as a way to share with traditional desktop applications.

Whichever vision you share, though, you can be sure of one thing. It's a trap.

Locked in

Firms don't just want to sell you a single bit of kit any more. They want to sell you an ecosystem - and the more bits of the ecosystem you invest in, the more difficult it is for you to jump ship.

Let's say you've bought a whole bunch of books in Apple's iBooks, your music is from iTunes, your media is stored on iCloud, you use an iPad to stream it to your Apple TV, your stereo is an iPod dock and your iPhone doubles as your sat-nav, the controller for your car's air-conditioning system, your TV remote control and the key for your front door.

Given the expense and the hassle of changing all of those things, are you really going to switch to Android if Google brings out a slightly nicer version of its OS or if Samsung makes a slightly nicer Galaxy Tab? If your smartphone was the brains of your car, would you really buy an iPhone if it meant losing the integration between your existing Android phone and your car? For most of us, the answer would be no.

Apple, Google and Microsoft aren't the only firms doing this, of course. Android firms are stuffing bookshops and video services into their tablets in the hope that once you choose their tablet, you'll stick with their kit forever; Sony's Bravia TVs really want you to use Sony Blu-Ray players and PS3s; and Amazon's Kindle books don't work in others' programs because Amazon wants you to use Kindle ereaders, Kindle PC and smartphone apps and its forthcoming Kindle tablet.

One company in particular knows the importance of lock-in: Microsoft. "The Windows API is... so deeply embedded in the source code of many Windows apps that there is a huge switching cost to using a different operating system instead," Microsoft's C++ General Manager Aaron Contorer wrote back in 1997. "It is this switching cost that has given the customers the patience to stick with Windows through all our mistakes, our buggy drivers, our high TCO (Total Cost of Ownership), our lack of a sexy vision, at times, and many other difficulties."

The OS war fallout

Bad news for Microsoft, whose income is still dominated by Windows and Office licenses: the price of software is heading downwards, fast. OS X Lion will be less than £30, and Google isn't charging its partners to use Chrome OS.

Windows 8

FAMILIAR:Microsoft's UI is being standardised across devices: Windows 8 (pictured), Windows Phone and Xbox 360

Apps are plummeting in price too, with Office rivals such as Apple's iWork apps going for £12.99 apiece and cloud-based Office rivals such as Google Docs available for free. And of course, updates to mobile OSes don't cost anything.

Firms will make money in other ways: by selling hardware or extra capacity in Apple's case, by selling ads or customisation in Google's, and by selling services in Microsoft's.

Expect all three firms to make healthy sums from their share of music downloads, ebook purchases and application sales too. Operating systems are likely to embrace the King Gillette model: give away the razor but charge for the blades.

Expect to see some collateral damage. Developers whose apps address shortcomings in firms' operating systems can expect to see those features appear in the next OS update, and hardware firms making stand-alone devices that are really about the software - sat-nav systems, or stand-alone in-car systems - should probably think about getting into apps. The biggest losers, however, are likely to be computer manufacturers.

There are several dangers here. One danger is backing the wrong horse, such as making Windows tablets only to discover the market prefers Android, or making Chromebooks when the market decides it'd rather stick with real laptops.

Another danger is that your chosen platform provider decides to bring everything in-house: Microsoft making its own Windows Phones, perhaps, or its own Windows 8 tablets. The only way firms can protect themselves from such problems is by diversifying: a bit of Google here, a bit of Microsoft there, a bit of something else over there.

OS x lion

OS X LION:Full screen apps, auto-saving, iPad-style icon launcher... the lines between desktop and mobile OSes are getting awfully blurry

The biggest risk may be from the world of patents. Florian Mueller correctly predicted that the Microsoft/Nokia deal would lead to a fairly friendly settlement of the Nokia/Apple patent battle, and he suggests that patents could make the Android market an increasingly vicious place.

The problem, Mueller says, is that Android is a "suit magnet". Google has a relatively low number of Android-related patents, and Mueller suggests that that could mean Android manufacturers suing one another. "Patent issues may turn Android-based devices into an unprofitable business at some point, regardless of consumer demand, and at that point it will be hard for anyone other than Google to make any money with Android," he says, noting that Sony is already locked in an Android patent battle with LG.

"I don't want to name names but I could see some Android device makers trying the same kind of cannibalization," Mueller says.

Bickering Android rivals aren't the only concern. Apple has just been granted a patent that effectively means it owns the multitouch gestures it pioneered, which means it could demand licensing fees from its rivals.

Post-PC isn't No-PC

George Shiffler is senior research director with Gartner. "We remained convinced as ever that there will always be a PC," he told us. "It may not be the star it was a decade ago, but it will be there and play an important role in people's lives and device portfolios."

PC operating systems will be come more mobile-y - OS X Lion and Windows 8 both take significant cues from their mobile siblings - but the PC isn't going away.

"The PC is an exceptionally adaptable platform and has shown itself capable of evolving in response to changing users' wants and needs," Shiffler says. "While newer devices have chipped away at its more marginal uses, it continues to offer users a core functionality that will not easily replicated by other devices.

"Indeed so far as I can see, neither Google, Apple, nor Microsoft is talking about replacing the PC experience but only delivering it differently. Naturally, that has implications for what PCs look like and how they function. But PCs have faced similar challenges before and emerged the better for it."

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Liked this? Then check out Windows 8: everything you need to know

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