Opinion: Andromeda could face a tough uphill battle
Three keys to any OS platform being successful are UI design, hardware support and application support. That said, the main reason for having good hardware and a good UI design is to entice developers to build applications for the platform in question. You could argue that application support is what separates a platform from an ecosystem. Even with excellent hardware and a clean UI, the platform needs a vibrant app catalog, like Nokia, Palm, Blackberry and Microsoft all learned the hard way in the mobile space. App support is the challenge that awaits Andromeda.
Obviously, Android is the world’s dominant operating system with an app and content catalog only iOS can compare to. That is, if your device of choice is a phone. Have you noticed that the Android tablet market is so stagnant that the 2013 Nexus 7 is still making Top Ten Tablets lists in the blogosphere? If more app developers made suitable tablet apps (or included a serviceable tablet UI in their existing apps), do you think the Nexus 9, the Pixel C and even Samsung’s Galaxy Tab lineup would be more successful? You might wonder what these tablet-related questions have to with Andromeda. Allow me to explain.
Andromeda promises to be a whole new platform, taking advantage of the best features of both Chrome OS and Android. However, the screens will basically be tablet/laptop screens with the option to easily switch between a mouse/hardware keyboard setup and a touch-centric setup. It aims to combine the PC-oriented world of Chrome OS with the app ecosystem of Android.
Most of us who follow the news about Andromeda are wondering what it’ll look like. For a logical possible scenario, I recommend reading this article from ComputerWorld. What we’ll most likely see in Google’s upcoming Pixel phones is the ability to automatically switch to a Chrome OS-like “desktop view” when the Pixel phone is connected to a TV or monitor via Chromecast or the like. According to rumors you’ll just connect your wireless keyboard and flip your Pixel phone over and use the glass panel on the back as a trackpad.
The Pixel C, the rumored Pixel 3 and even the Nexus 9 would probably have this “desktop” view active by default. How exciting it will be to enjoy the bigger screen with all the Android goodies the Play Store has to offer, right? The problem is, most Android apps made by third-party developers are made strictly for phones.
Well, you might say, with freeform windows (first formally introduced in Nougat) you can put several Android apps side by side on your landscape-oriented screen – problem solved! My next question is, how many of you work that way on your PCs now? Do you shrink your app windows so you can see them all at once or do you have one window maximized and use alt-tab or click on the taskbar to switch between applications? I suspect the answer for the majority is made clear by the continued existence of alt-tab and the taskbar, to begin with. Incidentally, did you notice how unpopular the Windows 8 UI was? There’s a good reason why Microsoft switched back to having a desktop/taskbar by default for Windows 10.
The fact is, the only time most of us want a portrait-oriented UI is when we’re on our phones. If we’re on a tablet, laptop or desktop (or a hybrid thereof), most of us want a landscape-oriented UI, something that few Android apps offer. Andromeda will have to provide users with a compelling reason to switch to a Pixel C or Pixel Phone with a Chromecast connection and a wireless keyboard. Otherwise, why not just keep using a Chromebook? If Google wants Andromeda to succeed they’ll have to do something they’ve failed to do for years: give app developers enough incentive to build a landscape UI into their Android apps. Otherwise,
If Google hasn’t been able to get any significant number of Android developers to make serviceable tablet apps for years, how are they going to entice developers to make compelling Andromeda-optimized apps? Will they just have a “desktop mode” that runs ChromeOS apps with a slide-out panel for Android apps (actually that doesn’t sound all that bad)? I certainly hope that Google will promote Andromeda to developers effectively so we’ll see a compelling catalog of landscape-oriented Android apps. Otherwise, we might as well just use a Chromebook.
For the record, Andromeda isn’t expected to kill off either Android or Chrome OS so we’ll apparently have three Google-developed platforms for the foreseeable future). Consider the following quote from ComputerWorld’s interview with Google exec Hiroshi Lockheimer, who oversees Chrome, Google Play, and Android:
That’s how we see it, and I think that’s how it will continue to be going forward. We’ll bring good attributes from both — so for instance, the example of running Android apps on Chrome, that’s bringing an attribute of Android over to Chrome. And maybe there are attributes of Chrome OS that we bring over to Android, and so on. That’s how we’re seeing it, so definitely not a binary sort of switch-transition type of thing.
As exciting as the Andromeda news is now, I think it has a tough uphill climb before it gains traction in the market and avoids Google’s legendary “Spring cleaning” fate in a few years…