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Platform Wars

Andromeda Looks Like Android's Ticket To The Big Screen

Google, Microsoft, and others have shown that touch apps and traditional interfaces can mix. But developers need to come along for the ride.

Andromeda Looks Like Android's Ticket To The Big Screen
[Photo: Valsur via iStock]

Blending traditional and touch computer user input methods to create a satisfying experience and commercial success has proven elusive for the three big consumer operating system vendors. Apple, in fact, has mostly avoided the challenge by keeping the Mac and ther iPad distinct, with Tim Cook likening attempts to meld laptop and tablet interfaces to combining a refrigerator with a toaster.

Microsoft, on the other hand, was all too eager to take a welding torch to those metaphorical appliances. Fearful of the iPad, it made touch Windows 8’s gairaigo—a foreign concept accommodated via a layer that existed largely in its own environment separate from an otherwise nearly untouched desktop interface. Windows 10 does a much better job of blending touch and traditional environments in Windows 10, and inventive hybrids such as Microsoft’s own Surface devices have grown in terms of overall market revenue share. But these devices still tend to be used pretty much like conventional laptops due to the dearth of tablet-optimized Windows apps.

Then there’s been Google, which has hemmed and hawed and hedged when it has come to melding desktop and touch user interfaces. Like Apple, company has historically had a keyboard/mouse-focused platform (Chrome OS) and a touch-focused (Android) one. However, it's been more willing to mix and match input techniques: It's long supported cursors in Android and has offered touchscreen input in Chromebooks since 2013’s Pixel.

Following Apple and its own hardware partners, such as Samsung, Google itself has finally embraced multiple apps sharing screen real estate in Android 7.0 Nougat. And it has made good on a promise to allow Android apps to run on certain Chromebooks such as the screen-rotating Acer Chromebook R11. Unlike Windows, Android has millions of touch-centric apps. But few are optimized for a larger screen. And many of the ones that were—such as Google’s own office suite—were already available as Chrome-ready websites.

If putting Android apps on Chrome OS has failed to excite, how about imbuing Android with elements of Chrome OS? That seems to be the idea behind Andromeda, a rumored forthcoming Google OS that would presumably aim to incorporate the best of both worlds. One model for how it may look and work comes from Remix OS, a tweaking of Android that debuted on a Surface-like device and has since become far more broadly available. It borrows desktop user interface elements from Windows even more aggressively than Chrome does.

Five years ago, I wrote that Chrome OS was heading toward a niche—ultimately the education market—versus Android. Now, with Andromeda, the security and simplicity that makes Chrome OS great and the windowing user interface that makes it usable on laptops could become key ingredients in finally allowing Android to have an impact on larger-screen computing devices.

Being able to run Android apps in a window, though, is simply not compelling enough to Android developers that are not excited by the shrinking PC market. In a time when Google is giving Android more mobile-focused smarts than ever, it might be a challenge to convince Android developers to optimize their apps for the PC's larger, less mobile screen and smaller use base. For that to take root, mobile developers may need to see phones that can somehow provide a larger screen experience through projection or other means.

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