Android + Windows 8 = Windows Super-Frankenstein

Desperate times lead to desperate measures, and the PC makers' desperation has led them to a three-headed Franken-PC

Among the many complaints users have had with Windows 8, the biggest is its dual personality that grafts the Windows 8 Metro user interface to the traditional Windows Desktop, a combination my colleague J. Peter Bruzzese accurately labeled "Windows Frankenstein." As a result, PC sales accelerated their decline as users bought tablets instead and businesses bought Windows 7 PCs (which they can still easily buy, unlike home users) -- or nothing at all.

PC makers are watching their market shrivel, and after a year of hoping the anti-Windows 8 sentiment would blow over and people would dutifully buy whatever was on offer, they realized users aren't going to spend money on Windows 8 PCs. As a result, the big three PC makers -- Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Lenovo -- have all begun selling Android tablets. The problem is, they make less money from those tablets than they do the already-thin-margin Windows PCs their profit goals depend on. Intel is also pushing traditional PC makers to make Andoid tablets using its x86 version of Android, to make up for lost PC chip sales. For Intel too there's less money in x86-based Android tablets.

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In response, at this week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), PC makers are unveiling "PC Plus" systems -- Windows PCs that also run Android applications via emulation or virtualization -- reputedly from Intel. Here comes Windroid!

I can't begin to fathom how anyone at these companies thought it made sense to graft yet another head on to Windows 8. But I can see how they came to this cockeyed conclusion: "People aren't using touchscreens on Windows 8 PCs because there are so few Metro apps -- so what if we filled that gap with Android?" This approach would let them sell $800 Windroid PCs rather than $300 Android tablets.

But this logic ignores a very inconvenient truth: If the solution to the PC dilemma is Android, then users will buy Android devices, cutting out the complexity of dealing with Windows as well. We've already seen that behavior take root among iPad users. As for the purported convenience of one PC that does it all, remember that most U.S. households already have tablets despite the "inconvenience" of switching devices. In fact, tablets are more convenient than PCs because they weigh less, are easier to use on the couch and other nondesk locations, and have longer battery life. And they do most of what people do most of the time.

Then there's the Frankenstein problem: Users don't like having to mentally reset as they move from Windows Desktop to Metro on the same device. Sometimes the touchscreen works, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes familiar shortcuts work, sometimes they don't. Now add Android, with its very different UI. It's clear people will make such mental switches when they move from one device to another, but they're not happy to do in the same physical context.

Especially when that same physical context isn't designed for the job. One of the big design flaws in Windows 8 touchscreen PCs is the use of a touchscreen that's vertical, requiring people to reach out and hold their arms in awkward positions that can cause physical damage over time. Metro apps can be controlled via a keyboard and mouse, though awkwardly, so users on a laptop or PC can avoid this problem. But Android apps are designed for an all-touch environment -- a horizontal touch environment, that is -- increasing the dissonance. So, in addition to the context shift to use Android apps on a Windroid PC, users face an anti-ergonomic user experience. (The Android-only PCs also announced at CES this week suffer this same fatal flaw.)

In other words, a Windroid PC is a bad Android tablet that does nothing to address Windows 8's failings. It only exacerbates them.

You might argue that such emulation is proven in the form of desktop virtualization tech that lets Macs run Windows and Linux. Yes, the technology is proven. But remember why Mac users use tools like Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion: as a transition aid from one desktop OS to another (Windows to OS X), as a safety net (for must-use apps available only in Windows), or for Web and application testing (one machine can run all versions of the site or app, a major convenience for developers). Most people use desktop virtualization tech to abandon Windows safely, but the goal of the PC Plus is to keep people in Windows -- adding Android won't do that, and it could even accelerate the switch away from PCs if people really do take to Android on their PCs and realize they don't need the PC part any more. 

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