Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Google recently released its developer preview of Android N. Shortly after the release, indications surfaced that N would support not only split-screen multitasking, but free form windows as well. The windowing capability has now been demonstrated, making it clear that Google's strategy for Android is to take on Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) as a full-fledged personal computing platform.
Source: ars technica
The new free form windows were showcased in a recent article by Ron Amadeo in ars technica. The windows use the Android Material Design visual approach and I think they're very attractive and functional. The early N beta is still very crude. You can drag and reposition windows using a title bar with close and maximize buttons, but the title bars lack actual titles. You can resize a window in one direction by dragging an edge but not by dragging a corner.
App windows don't overlay the actual home screen, but exist in their own environment that uses the home screen wallpaper. The implementation is still pretty rough around the edges, but that's to be expected at this point. For instance, windows basically would go dead when not in the forefront. This may be deliberate as a way of limiting demand on the host processor.
The ease with which Android N implements app windows, even for a relatively small touch screen interface, underscores an issue I've had with Windows ever since Windows 8. In Windows 8, Microsoft almost completely abandoned the window UI for touch based devices, preferring either full screen or split-screen. I never thought this was a good decision. It wasn't as if you couldn't implement app windows with touch-based controls. Android N shows that it's actually pretty easy.
App windows constitute a very powerful and flexible way to organize multitasking apps, even for relatively small screen devices. With Windows 8, Microsoft seemed to be trying just a little too hard to "modernize" its UI for tablets. Even when Microsoft reverted partially to desktop windowing for Windows 10, it was as if this was only meant for desktop computers, or tablets and phones used in desktop mode via Continuum.
As such, Windows 10 still seemed to suffer from the unresolved split personality of the "Modern UI" tablet mode vs. desktop mode. For some time, I've been saying that I didn't think this was necessary or desirable. App windows could work with touch by simply enlarging control surfaces to be touch friendly. Android N provides a beautiful demonstration that windows and full screen/split screen modes can be unified through a consistent (Material Design) visual approach. As crude as it is, Android N is already a far more visually unified experience than Win10.
In keeping with the flexible character of Android N windows, Google also has modified its mouse cursor support, which was always fairly basic. Now, cursors can change mode to indicate usage as when the mouse cursor changes to a double-ended arrow when resizing a window.
Convergence or Bust
Android N and Windows 10 show just how real convergence between mobile and personal computer operating systems has become. Apple's official stance on convergence has become increasingly Luddite rather than enlightened. This is ironic considering that Apple is the company that introduced the world to the app window and the mouse driven cursor.
The fact that even mobile operating systems are returning to the window and mouse cursor UIs show how powerful and timeless they are. The small screen and limited processing power of the iPad can certainly not be used to justify depriving iOS users of these powerful UI capabilities. The iPad is both larger in screen size and more computationally powerful than the original Mac.
For some time, Apple has had two obvious paths toward convergence and has refused both of them. Apple has refused to endow Mac OS X systems with touch capability, and it has refused to endow iOS systems with app window or mouse cursor support. This is a situation that cannot go on indefinitely.
And I don't expect it to. With iOS 9 split-screen multitasking and the more powerful iPad Pros, Apple clearly wants to position iOS as its personal computing platform of the future. This was part of the message coming out of the March 21 event, as I recently discussed. However, Apple's claims of iPad Pro being a PC replacement really lack credibility without the crucial UI elements of app windows and cursors.
For the time being, Apple seems to want to make the iOS interface paradigms of touch and stylus work for its new "vision of personal computing." The trouble is that Google has the better, more flexible and capable vision.
Android N, in combination with Google's commodity business model, poses the greatest near-term threat to Microsoft. The Android ecosystem has a number of advantages compared to Windows. Android is mostly free to OEMs, so it provides Android OEMs with a cost advantage relative to Windows. Android runs mostly on ARM processor hardware, and I believe that provides another cost advantage compared to Wintel hardware.
Most importantly, the attraction of Android as a personal computing platform is that it's an already familiar platform for over a billion users worldwide. It's a modern platform with a vibrant app ecosystem and Google Play store. Google is able to derive revenue from Android through advertising and taxing app store sales. The fact that Google has its Android revenue stream established is a significant advantage compared to Microsoft. In contrast, Microsoft doesn't have a large app store or advertising revenue to draw upon, while still having to give away Win10 to consumers.
Android N could very well be a watershed for Google. It could begin to establish Android not merely as the dominant smartphone platform but the dominant personal computing platform as well. I continue to rate Google as a buy.
Disclosure: I am/we are long AAPL.
I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.