Computers

Paul Gilster: Merging two operating systems on a PC is not the answer

CorrespondentFebruary 16, 2014 

You could be forgiven for thinking that the era of the PC is ending, at least where consumers are concerned. The market for PC desktops and laptops has been dropping since 2011. Microsoft, whose operating systems drive the great bulk of these machines, is getting something less than a wild reception for Windows 8.1, which currently weighs in at about 4 percent of the OS market. And take a look at Sony, which at one point was selling close to 9 million PCs every year. It has dropped its share of the business to concentrate on smartphones and tablets.

We now know that consumer spending during the holidays resulted in a lot more tablets in new hands than PCs. So computer manufacturers are turning to a new idea to goose up sales. Get ready for dual operating systems that allow you to run both Windows and Android at the same time. Boosters like Intel are quick to point out that rebooting your PC to switch between operating systems isn’t the goal. Instead, the idea is to allow seamless movement between typical Windows software and the apps you’ve grown used to on your Android phone or tablet.

New devices from Samsung and Asus are getting ready to appear in the pipeline – look for them by mid-year. Chipmakers like Intel are selling the idea as a matter of choice, allowing users to take advantage of Android apps that many find indispensable on their mobile devices. PC manufacturers looking for a way to reinvigorate sales talked the idea up at the latest Consumer Electronics Show in January, anxious to exploit what many see as an explosive new trend. Merging two operating systems, the thinking goes, delivers the best of two worlds.

Complexity a problem

But that’s exactly the problem. As a heavy computer user who counts on the devices to get my work done every day, I have defined goals that don’t include increasing the complexity of my machine. Most users take advantage of a small percentage of their computer’s features as it is, either not needing the extra tools or finding them too complicated to locate and launch. PC makers are making a serious mistake if they think consumers will rally around products that overload an already complex user experience.

Give me a notebook running both Windows and Android and I’m still going to be looking for my core applications and the documents I produce with them. The more powerful processors that dual operating systems will demand could be better put to work driving existing applications faster. Hybrid devices have yet to prove themselves in the PC business. Part of the problem of Windows 8 is that it tries to impose a single operating system across everything from desktop PCs to tablets. But my tablet works just fine without Windows 8, and so does my PC.

Straightforward and simple

So ask yourself this: Would you rather learn to use a computer that has an operating system built specifically to tap its architecture, or would you prefer to shoehorn a single operating system onto every gadget you own? If the answer seems obvious, then it should be equally obvious that putting not one but two operating systems on the same device will make the user experience a complicated mess. Give me a straightforward, simple user interface and let me get back to work so that the operating system is something I don’t even need to think about.

Keeping operating systems consistent is possible without merging them. Apple does an excellent job of this with iOS – running on iPhones and mobile devices – and OS X, which runs on its desktops and laptops. Different devices have their own demands and need software optimized for their architecture. Surely consumers have already figured this out. Trying to merge separate technologies that are each following their own trajectories spells confusion for all.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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