I, for One, Welcome Our New Android Overlords

Google’s mobile operating system is jumping to the PC. Hallelujah!

Here’s a fun way to test Bing, the new search engine that Microsoft launched this week: Use it to search for news about Android, the open-source operating system that looks to be Google’s revenge on its tech rival. You’ll discover that at the recent Computex computer show in Taiwan, a parade of PC makers unveiled several “smartbooks,” a new buzzword for stylish mobile computers with great battery life and cellular access to the Internet. These tiny, cheap machines can do fantastic things— play high-definition video, get GPS directions, browse the Web from anywhere, and turn on and off as quickly as your iPod. There’s another thing that makes these computers special—they run Android, an OS that Google originally designed for mobile phones. But phones were just the beginning. More and more, Android is looking like Google’s plan for going after Microsoft’s cash cow.

Don’t get me wrong: Microsoft isn’t in danger of losing its grip on PCs. When Windows 7, its well-designed new OS, goes on sale in October, it’ll almost certainly become an instant blockbuster. That’s because every version of Windows is an instant blockbuster, even the ones that people say they hate. But the PC business isn’t what it used to be. In the past, the market was fueled by Moore’s law—you bought a new laptop or desktop every couple of years because you needed more power to do more stuff. This setup worked well for computer makers as well as for Microsoft and Intel, the twin monopolies that rule the industry. But lately lots of customers have been shunning the model. We don’t really want more power to do more stuff; instead, we want less. We’re happy to trade in power for portability, battery life, Internet access, or a low price. That’s why we’re snapping up netbooks with cramped keyboards and barely enough juice to run Firefox, and why the only computers that anyone is willing to stand in line to get are cell phones.

All of these low-power, ultra-portable portable devices are threatening to push traditional PCs to the periphery of our lives. Smartbook, for instance, is the term coined by the cell phone maker Qualcomm to describe computers that run off chips first designed for cell phones and other portable electronics. The company anticipates that smartbooks will be used as a cross between a notebook and a phone; you’ll reach for it when you want to take quick notes in a meeting but probably not when you want to crunch numbers in a spreadsheet. Then there are the tablet Web clients, e-book readers, set-top boxes, and various other constantly connected Internet “appliances” that we’ll come to depend on over the next few years. All these things will need slick operating systems to keep them humming. Who will make that OS? Microsoft has long had trouble moving its Windows monopoly beyond the PC. In the process, it’s left the field wide open to Android.

Witness, for instance, how Microsoft fumbled the netbook market—the hottest sector of the PC business over the last year. Its latest OS, Windows Vista, is too bloated to run well on many netbooks. Most of these underpowered machines carry Windows XP, Microsoft’s eight-year-old operating system, which the company licenses to PC makers for just $15 per copy—far less than what it’s used to making on new computer sales.

Microsoft promises that Windows 7 will be able to run on netbooks, but it has announced a risky strategy to squeeze profits from these machines. The company plans to cripple the cheapest versions of the new OS in order to encourage PC makers to pay for premium editions. If you buy a netbook that comes with the low-priced Windows 7 Starter Edition, you won’t be able to change your screen’s background or window colors, you won’t be able to play DVDs, you can’t connect it to another monitor, and you won’t see many of the user-interface advances found in other versions. If you’d like more flexibility, you’ll need to upgrade to a more expensive version of Windows—which will, of course, defeat the purpose of your cheap PC. (Microsoft had originally planned to limit Starter Edition even further—you wouldn’t be able to run more than three programs at a time. It removed that limitation after howls of protest.)

While Microsoft is setting up barriers for netbook makers, Android is inviting them with open arms. Google offers the OS to anyone at a price even lower than what Microsoft charges for XP: It’s free. The first Android-based netbooks aren’t scheduled to hit the market until the fall—PC makers Acer, ASUS, Compal, and others have unveiled upcoming Android-based machines—so we’ll have to wait to see whether Google’s OS will actually run well on something other than a phone. But I’ve got high hopes; I’ve found Android to be a delight on the few phones I’ve tried it on, and by many accounts the experience on computers is similarly enjoyable.

What’s more, Android offers a user-interface well-suited to machines with limited power that are constantly online. Unlike Windows, Android will run only programs that you get from a centralized location—Android’s App Marketplace, which lists programs that have been deemed safe by Google. This makes your system less susceptible to malware, which is important on a machine that has so little processing power to begin with. Android’s got lots of other little touches that are a blast on the go. Like a cell phone, it can stay connected to the Web even when it’s in standby mode—it can be busy downloading stuff, for example, even if it’s tucked away. It also switches between apps and load new ones very quickly; there’s little of the lag one finds on PCs when going between, say, a bloated e-mail program and a bloated Web browser.

What can Microsoft do to blunt the threat of Android? This is not complicated: It needs to make a better mobile OS, and fast. In February, the company released Windows Mobile 6.5, a long-awaited new version of its cell phone operating system—it was immediately panned. While its rivals have been improving their devices at a breakneck pace, Microsoft has failed to add support for a host of features people consider important in modern phones. For instance, Windows Mobile can’t support the “capacitive touchscreens” on multi-touch-enabled phones and doesn’t include an on-screen keyboard, and its Web browser looks like something you might have used in 1999. Unless Microsoft has a major change in priorities, it’ll likely be a year or more before it comes out with mobile phones that can do what Android, the iPhone, and the Pre can do today. By that time, of course, its rivals will be way ahead, and Android in particular will have conquered devices far beyond the humble phone.