This year, Android is donning the crown of the world’s No. 1 operating system, both in terms of the number of devices that use it and the revenue its ecosystem generates. As an Android user, I don’t really mind — but there are ominous aspects to its growing dominance and a possibility that better technology may not get the recognition it deserves. StatCounter, the web analytics company, reports that Android devices accounted for 37.93 percent of global internet traffic, just ahead of Windows’ 37.91 percent. That’s remarkable, considering that most people use some version of Windows on computers at work. Given the mobile operating system’s momentum as people spend more time on their phones, the scale will soon tip further in Android’s favor.
On the revenue side, Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS, has long been the dominant moneymaker. AppAnnie, a firm that keeps tabs on the app economy, predicts, however, that it will be displaced by Android this year. While Apple’s App Store will still collect almost twice as much revenue as the Google Play store, owned by Google’s parent Alphabet Inc., third-party Android app stores will make sure that the Google operating system tops iOS.
Alphabet doesn’t say how much it’s making from Android, nor does Apple break out the App Store in its financial reports. Last year, Oracle, which sued Google for copyright infringement, disclosed a number in court: It claimed the Android revenue reached $33 billion between 2008 and 2015. There is no comparable number for Apple, but Android has a certain business model advantage: Part of the revenue comes from Google’s main business — ads shown to users in the Google apps that come with Android. That revenue stream, which Apple doesn’t have, may well compensate for Alphabet’s lack of control over the third-party stores.
Android is the ugly duckling of the operating-system world. It’s technically open-source and free to use, so device makers like to tweak it. That creates chaos and often lowers the quality of the user experience, which advanced users try to fix by messing with the system themselves. Because of the variety of Android flavors and hardware on which the system runs, updates are intermittent for most users — those who don’t own a Google-branded or co-branded device. Though the general interface design has approved in recent years, it can sometimes feel raw and less convenient than that of Apple’s sleek iOS. Many, including myself, like Android because it can be an exciting set of building blocks for a little boy (or girl).
That it’s winning the operating system race is exciting to those who, like me, have argued that the open-source approach is the most progressive. Besides, Alphabet’s push to turn phones into virtual reality devices is an interesting vision for the future of a gadget that’s getting harder and harder to improve. But Android’s emerging dominance is also worrying for two reasons.
One is privacy. The reason Android is free is that Google, Alphabet’s main unit, is an advertising company that collects lots of data about users. Given the erosion of privacy protections, I’m not sure Google is the platform on which I’d like to do most of my personal computing. The other problem with Android’s ascendancy is that it’s not a good operating system for desktops and laptops. The three major operating-system makers — Apple, Alphabet and Microsoft — have chosen distinct approaches to handling different kinds of devices. Apple creates a separate system for every device category — the MacOS for laptops and desktops, the iOS for phones and tablets, and separate systems for wearables and set-top boxes.
Alphabet is trying to make a mobile system usable on devices equipped with a hardware keyboard. Android apps run on Chromebooks, and Samsung’s latest Galaxy S8 smartphone can be turned into a desktop machine by using a special dock. But many of the apps run in phone size in the middle of a big screen, and many desktop apps to which Windows and Mac users are accustomed are not available for Android. It’s an irritating compromise.
Microsoft has the most promising approach: It’s trying to port its desktop operating system to mobile devices. That its Surface laptop-tablet hybrids run the full version of Windows is a major competitive advantage over competing products using iOS and Android. Microsoft has also tweaked Windows so that it can now run on ARM processors, the architecture used in mobile devices. This appears to be the most promising approach to the seamless use of the same apps across various devices. But Microsoft has botched its smartphone project so badly that even selling phones with the full version of Windows — which will truly turn the pocket device into a scalable computer — would probably be an uphill battle.
If Android’s dominance keeps growing and Microsoft cannot sell the public on its superior vision, that will mean a victory for suboptimal technology, something I, for one, would be sorry to see. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.