With Google I/O coming up later this week, Google OS chief Sundar Pichai sat down for a short interview with Wired’s Steven Levy. For the most part, it’s what you would expect, no huge storylines before the company’s biggest conference of the year. The head of Chrome and Android lowers expectations a bit by saying I/O is “not a time when we have much in the way of launches or new products or a new operating system” but he does provide some clarity to Google’s two-operating system initiative.
This really struck me. It was the first time I recall Google going right to a comparison with iOS and OS X to explain the existence of both Android and ChromeOS. In the past, the theory was that Android was for touch interfaces and Chrome was meant for traditional mouse/keyboard/trackpad users. While it’s a bit of a dodge, the message is clear: the operating systems have different purposes, although the touchscreen-equipped Chromebook Pixel blurs that line a tad. Many words have been typed by others about what those purposes are and how they might be better served, but the point stands: different tools for different uses.
ChromeOS is a hands-off operating system that is maintained from afar. Chromebooks store everything in the cloud and can be wiped and replaced at will. Android devices behave like traditional computers: you install software written for the device, it gets backed up in a more traditional manner rather than syncing the entire phone online (although that does occur to a lesser extent). iOS is Apple’s mobile operating system, powering iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches. Like ChromeOS it can be synced to the cloud and restored onto a new device without a hitch. iOS is touch based but built on the same underpinnings as big brother OS X.
Why didn’t Microsoft learn from these two examples when rolling out Windows 8 and Windows RT? RT, like Windows Phone could be the touch-first operating system out of Redmond. It could lack legacy support for older Windows programs. It could skip the traditional desktop for the ModernUI interface. Windows 8, on desktop PCs would look a lot like Windows 7. No ModernUI or using that as an alternative application interface only, similar to the widget screen on OS X. Something that is sitting out of the way until you need it. The Surface tablets could still exist. RT wouldn’t have the traditional desktop at all. Windows 8 on the Surface Pro could even be set to boot to ModernUI instead of the desktop because that’s the hybrid device, like the Chromebook Pixel, pointing the way towards Microsoft’s version of the future of computing.
Why two interfaces? All Microsoft would have to say is “Users care about applications and services they use, not operations systems.” One is for touch interface, the other for the traditional desktop experience.