Mobile operating systems have reinvented computing on the fly. Now companies like Apple and Microsoft hope to bring the ease of smartphone and tablet computing to the home- and office-based terminal.
The mobile OS has evolved dramatically in just a few short years. The systems running today’s iOS, Android and Windows Phone 7 devices are as intuitive as they are sophisticated and tasked with managing everything from high-power processors to multiple sensors. It’s the intuitive part of that equation that Microsoft, Apple and maybe even Google are looking to cash in on as they attempt to merge various facets of their mobile operating systems to their desktop platforms.
The smartphone is a touch-based, intuitive gadget that can accomplish many of the tasks that consumers used to relegate to their desktops. According to comScore, more than 82 million people in the United States own smartphones. Apple and Microsoft understand that as a result of spending their days on their mobile devices, consumers are increasingly arriving back at their homebased terminals feeling frustrated by that clunky keyboard and mouse. As desktop sales fall, both companies are aware that something has to change.
Andrew Chien, a William Eckhardt professor of computer science at the University of Chicago, says that the current integration of mobile and desktop operating systems is all about usability for the end user.
Chien notes that for the past two decades, the primary mode of interaction with computers (i.e., keyboard, mouse, etc.) has proved relatively clumsy and complex for the typical user, as even consumer PCs share a design legacy that was aimed primarily at completing the complex tasks of the workplace. It’s only been recently that the touchscreen-based mobile device has approached mass adoption, and users are suddenly seeing their desktops through a different lens.
“I think frankly there are some things that are so much more fun to do on an iPad or an iPhone, say than on a Mac, that the users just get frustrated when they return to their deskdesktops,” Chien says. “Users are getting so used to just flicking to do something on their iPad, and then they go over to their desktop and their keyboard, and they’re like, ‘Why can’t I do that?’ This thing costs ten times as much, so it oughta be at least as good.”
Apple is probably the most obvious example of the mobile merging with the desktop. With Mac OS X Lion, the company has moved to integrate gestures that were formerly reserved for its touchscreenbased iOS devices, while simultaneously bringing full-screen apps to its desktop machines.
“Apple has decided which side they’re on,” Chien says. “They’re going to bring all of that intuitive natural stuff into Mac OS X and [that integration] is more important than preserving compatibility with the old interfaces,” Chien says.
Chien doesn’t have his head in the academic sand. Prior to coming to the University of Chicago, he worked as vice president of research for Intel on various projects related to cloud computing. Chien says that Intel was not blind to the way touchscreens would change computing. The chip company actually had pre-literate research groups set up that gave iPads to 3- and 4-year olds. Touch, he says, is just the natural next step in the evolution of our interaction with computers.
“I think touch is now well-established and it’s going to continue to get richer. We’ve gone from single touch to multi-touch. Apple now has gestures. People will add force sensitivity, and you’ll see more modes of that added down the line,” Chien says.
Chien doesn’t foresee a future where the desktop is obsolete, but he does see the mobile device chipping away at the reasons a consumer might want or need to use a desktop. More specifically, he says the desktop will be used primarily for processor- and power-intensive tasks (i.e.,heavy graphic laden design, art and computational tasks), while smartphones and tablets take over most of the on-the-go consumer-based functions (i.e., light document creation, photo sharing, etc.).
webOS AND WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN
Ease of use is one thing, but are there advantages to running the same OS on both the desktop and the mobile? Before HP killed off its webOS devices, the company had said it intended to do just that with its mobile platform, saying it would ship PCs running webOS. This is the kind of integration that goes well beyond just gestures and UI.
Luis Portela, analyst for Pyramid Research, says that connecting devices to content and services via the cloud assets is one major reason that HP was considering a single OS for all of its devices.
“As far as my understanding goes, HP’s motivation in bringing webOS to PCs was mainly connected with its vision of creating/betting on a cloud computing world for its devices, where people would access diverse common services, pieces of software and content regardless of the HP access device they used,” Portela says, adding that such a move would reduce complexity for HP, facilitate communication among devices and make device usage easier to end-users.
Portela says that the question isn’t so much whether a mobile OS is robust enough to power a desktop but rather what use cases any particular device is aimed at fulfilling.
“The adaptation of OSes to smartphones was in fact one of the main problems the mobile industry faced when bringing PClike capabilities to devices, and which Apple tackled very well with the iPhone given the change of usage paradigm brought by the iOS,”Portela says.
So might we eventually see a single operating system shared between the iPhone and Mac, or Windows Phone 7 smartphone and a desktop PC? Like Chien, Portela says it makes sense, at least on the consumer side of things.
“The consumer operating system must deal with different network capabilities and requirements, as they have to enable the device to operate both as a mobile communications device and a PC, as well as enable quite different usage cases, as mobile devices in general have size, memory and capability limitations which PCs can tackle differently,” he says. “The limitations inherent in mobile devices make bringing a mobile OS into a PC platform easier than the other way around.”
But it’s not just the end user who would benefit from a common mobile/desktop OS. Portela says that having a common platform for mobile and desktops would expand the available device ecosystem for any given application.
As this kind of convergence is discussed, what comes to mind is whether a handset OEM with a complementary desktop platform is more competitive than an OEM without one (re: RIM). Portela says that’s a possibility, but prefers to place more importance on focus and business model.
“Having an OS capable of running on PCs may be beneficial by enlarging the ecosystem’s addressable market and augmenting the ability to offer cloud services across a wider array of devices,” Portela says.“But in my opinion, competitiveness depends a lot on how well the OS strategy is aligned with the companywide strategy and its objectives, as a desktop OS addresses the needs of a different type of device usage that may not be core to a specific company.”
IMPACT ON THE PC MARKET
Convergence talk inevitably leads to talk of obsolescence. First it was netbooks cutting into the desktop market; now it’s tablets and smartphones. Lower price points of these devices, as well as better usability and portability, are probably the key reasons users are choosing to stick $500 into an iPad instead of a bulky new all-in-one or tower desktop. Reports are mixed on whether devices like the iPad have actually cut into the PC market, but it’s something everyone will be keeping an eye on going forward.
Portela says the impact these devices are having on the desktop market cannot be underestimated. “Mobile devices are definitely influencing the PC market to a big extent, not only by bringing a new, more intuitive usage experience to data service and application usage, but also by opening up computing to a wider spectrum of consumers,” he says.
A cheaper, more mobile device is oftentimes the only option for consumers in emerging markets, Portela says. “The arrival of computing capabilities and applications to mobile devices, which can be much more affordable than PCs, is enabling many consumers in emerging markets to have their own personal device to access the Internet and other data services and applications, enlarging the market for both computing devices and Internet/data services.”
While the end of the PC might not be within sight, the convergence of the mobile and desktop operating systems certainly seems to lean towards a re-imagining of how computers are used in consumers’ daily lives.