Remember that time from about 2003-2006? That was the period when Windows XP ruled our computing worlds. After a flurry of Windows versions from 1995-2001 (Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows 2000 and Windows Me) Microsoft finally seemed to have got its act together and released a version of Windows that seemed to please everyone – Windows XP. The OS got good reviews and was a huge success.
It should have been Windows proudest hour. Well, it was. The problem was that it got stretched out for a long time. Almost six years in fact. On the surface, it was a terrific time for Windows – it was by far the dominant player in the PC business, and the perceived threat by Linux in the consumer space never really materialized. It was the best of times for Windows as an OS – one version running on most computers – more than 400 million copies of the OS were sold in the first few years of its availability.
The problem with this dominance, however, was that Windows XP got more or less taken for granted. By around 2005, it was assumed that the OS on any computer would be Windows XP, and suddenly the main point of distinction between different computers was hardware and design. The software took a backseat, and was barely mentioned even by the manufacturers, who preferred to lay greater stress on multi-core, high-speed processors, RAM, display sizes and other tech specs.
Fast forward to the present, and Android is danger of falling into the same trap
On paper, times have never been better for Google’s mobile OS. It has pretty much routed the likes of Symbian and BlackBerry and is comfortably ahead of the likes of Windows Phone and iOS. But cast an eye over the latest flagship devices trotted out by major brands and what you will notice is the Windows XP scenario being played out once again – the stress is on design (brushed aluminum, chamfers, glass and metal components) and hardware (processors, memory, cameras, sensors), rather than the OS. Even the software that gets highlighted is more often than not that developed by the manufacturer (HTC with Blinkfeed, Samsung with TouchWiz, and so on). Android itself has been relegated to the status of a spectator whose presence is reassuring but not necessarily worth highlighting. In fact, the only phone or tablet events in which Android manages to grab a share of the centre stage are those of Google and its acquisitions – the Nexus and Moto launches, for instance.
There will be some who will say that this is not a matter for concern. After all, what does Microsoft or Google care as long as its OS – XP or Android, as the case may be – is being used extensively and generating revenues? Is not the bottomline what matters at the end of it all, and if your OS is doing very well, what’s there to complain?
Well, actually, a whole lot. For, if hardware and design become the defining components of a product segment, the OS recedes into the background. Soon a stage comes when the consumer gets more concerned about the hardware than the software on the device – no software company likes that, as it opens the door for rivals (the consumer is looking for octa core processors and lots of RAM, not an OS!). There is also a greater chance of the consumer’s experience of the OS getting muddled as manufacturer’s add their own customisations and apps to it – something that happened with XP (why do you think Windows 8 has an interface that limits what manufactures can do with it) and is happening now with Android.
And then there is the matter of the consumer, who is also suddenly drawn into concerns of hardware and spec sheets rather than worrying about what works best for them. Microsoft spent far too much time with Windows XP, one has the feeling that notwithstanding its many pastry product names, Google might be making the same mistake with Android 4.0 – there are many people who cannot distinguish between a device running Android 4.0 and 4.4 at first glance, and purchasing phones and tablets has suddenly become a case of tallying up RAM and processor core counts rather than the OS experience. And that surely is not good news for Google.
Of course, getting out of the rut is not easy. Microsoft discovered that with Windows Vista. But to its credit, the company innovated quickly, and came out with an improved version, Windows 7. And this time, it did not rest on its laurels – within a few years of Windows 7, came Windows 8. Of course, Windows 8 is taking its share of flak, but given Microsoft’s track record, the chances of a highly improved, new OS are excellent (we are already hearing of Windows 9). More crucially, however, Microsoft has managed to shift focus back on software, levelling the hardware and software playing field in the eyes of the consumer at least. Yes, consumers will still worry about RAM and processor speeds when they buy PCs, but they also now ask if the computer is running Windows 8.1!
Google needs to do the same. Will it? Or will it be content to keep playing the Windows XP blues?