Thoughts On Andromeda

It is widely expected that Google will announce their new Andromeda operating system next week on Oct. 4th. There is a lot of speculation on what the Andromeda OS might look like, and the original sources (1, 2) suggest some key points.

  1. Ambitious initiative that is being pursued via merging Chrome features into Android, not vice versa.
  2. Google plans to launch its forthcoming Andromeda Android/Chrome OS hybrid OS on two devices: a Huawei Nexus tablet and a “convertible laptop”.

All this suggests that Andromeda is mainly focused on tablets and convertible laptops, at least for the short-term. Without going into the details of what Andromeda is actually capable of, I believe that this is the core of the argument and what will dictate whether Andromeda will succeed or not.

Andromeda is aimed at Google’s weakness

Google has two separate operating systems for the PC and tablet markets. One is Chrome OS which has seen significant adoption in the institutional US education market, but has mostly failed to make any significant contribution to the general consumer or business markets. The other is Android which holds a significant share of the tablet market, but only for what is often labeled “media consumption” consisting largely of video viewing.

Unlike Microsoft which still commands the vast majority of the business personal computing market via PCs, Android tablets do not appeal to people who want to work on business documents. This is also true for the mass iPad market, and is the challenge for tablets as a whole.

It has also been often mentioned that there are very few Android apps that have been designed to take advantage of the tablet form factor. Ars Technica’s Ron Amadeo examined 200 apps from Google Play’s “Top Apps” list and found the situation to be quite dire. (To be fair, the design of this analysis experiment is not very scientific. The choice of the “top free apps” list is arbitrary, and a control experiment with a similar list for iPad is necessary.)

Of the top 200 apps:

  • Nineteen were not compatible with the Pixel C
  • Sixty-nine did not support landscape at all
  • Eighty-four were stretched-out phone apps
  • Twenty-eight were, by my judgment, actual “tablet” apps

From the above, I think that it is safe to say that the markets that Andromeda is targeting (the PC and tablet markets), are the markets where Google is weakest.

Similarities to Microsoft’s attempt at the smartphone market

The above situation is similar to the predicament where Microsoft finds itself in with respect to entering the smartphone market. Android is very strong in the smartphone market, and Andromeda is an attempt to use that strength to push Google into the productivity tablet (a market that has yet proved illusive for the iPad as well) and PC market. Microsoft on the other hand has tried to use their dominance of the PC market to gain an entry into the smartphone market.

We know that Microsoft’s attempt has largely failed up till now. The smartphone market has matured and is split between iPhone and Android. Although newcomers have tried to break into the market, all have failed to date. Microsoft’s chance was during the early days when Android’s dominance was not yet secured, but they failed to deliver a compelling solution in time.

We can apply the same analysis to the PC market. The PC market has matured and is dominated by Windows. Although the Mac has tried to regain market share on the halo effect of the iPhone and has gained some market share, this has been a very slow process. The majority market is still dominated by Windows. Similarly, Andromeda will find it extremely challenging to break into a market which is highly mature, and where the major battles have already been fought decades ago.

The consumerisation of IT as a tailwind

The consumerisation of IT is a relatively new phenomenon, and favours players that are strong in the consumer IT arena over those in corporate IT. That is, if the consumerisation of IT is a strong tailwind and if Apple and Google ride this well, there is a possibility that they could challenge Microsoft’s dominance in PCs. Given the maturation and stability of Microsoft’s dominance, without some kind of strong tailwinds, Apple and Google cannot win. In other words, the consumerisation of IT is a new force that could change the balance of power in the PC market, and could create an opening for Apple and Google that they could not have pried open alone.

However if the reverse happens, that is if IT stops flowing from the consumer to corporate and instead starts flowing in the other direction, the direct opposite situation can happen. Jan Dawson has argued that this is indeed starting to happen. Therefore, instead of Andromeda gaining traction in the PC market, we might actually see the the reverse which is Windows gaining traction in smartphones.

The OS is not what matters most

When looking at a new OS like Andromeda, we must be careful to remember that the OS is not necessarily the most important piece of the puzzle. In fact, its importance may indeed be minor. More important is the market position that Google is currently in, their ability to execute a coherent strategy, the commitment of 3rd party developers to create software that makes use of the new OSes features, and the broad market trends that sweep across the industry.

As I have argued above, regardless of the features that Andromeda may have, other factors are not in Google’s favour. Furthermore, what I consider to be most significant and indeed pivotal is whether the consumerisation of IT continues, or whether this will be reversed. The fate of Andromeda hinges on this.

Conclusion

  1. Whatever features may be announced for Andromeda will not be the most important.
  2. Andromeda and Windows 10 are tackling the same problem from opposite ends and with inverse strengths & weaknesses.
  3. What will determine Andromeda’s fate is whether the consumerisation of IT will continue. Recent trends suggest that this is questionable.
  • obarthelemy

    Trying to step back, I think Google has 3 issues:
    1- China. It’s noble to avoid it, but doesn’t make financial sense. Apple doing it probably makes it OK for Google to go back there, compromissions(*) and all.
    2- Desktop. ChromeOS is doing very fine in a very specific segment (US edu). Leaving MS in a monopoly situation on the desktop means MS will milk it endlessly until they get Mobile right.
    3- Android updates. Mostly technical issue, a bit political with carriers and OEMs insisting on modifying Android which makes updates harder. ChromeOS is actually the safest mainstream OS around: Google know how to make a safe OEM OS, they just need to get serious about it for Android.

    My best guess is Andromeda will try to solve 2- and 3-, while leveraging both Android’s and ChromeOS’s ecosystems, ie embracing and extending their app catalog, probably tacking on extra capabilities (competent desktop mode for Android apps+UI, generalized offline mode for ChromeOS apps…)

    (*) it seems “compromission” doesn’t exist in English. It’s “compromise”, but the bad kind, the one in which you renege on core values, not the one in which you give up inconsequential stuff.

    • I agree with the issues that you bring up, and I agree that Andromeda is an attempt to solve item 2 (item 3 is a likely target, but the rumours do not point to that yet).

      The question that I have is will Google be able to solve item 1 & 2. Despite its technical capability and great services, getting into a market that has already been saturated is not easy. I do not think that their dominance on smartphones will help them much going into desktops, in the same way that being dominant on desktop PCs didn’t help Windows gain traction in smartphones. Once a market has been saturated, getting into it with a completely new platform tends to be very different.

      So yes, I agree with Google’s intentions #1 & #2. It’s just that I strongly doubt that Google can make them work.

      • obarthelemy

        I think the one big difference… well, actually, 2 or 3 differences:
        1- MS fumbled the ball repeatedly, they had like 4 incompatible/jarringly different APIs/UIs in a span of a handful of years. By the time they got to a unified Win10, they had discouraged both devs and users to follow their haphazard route to the Mobile+Desktop combo. Google hasn’t fumbled yet, both Android and ChromeOS are performing way above expectations.
        2- MS’s way was to create a whole new ecosystem, incompatible with the old Win32 ecosystem (on Mobile at least). I think Google’s Andromeda will have access to both Android’s and ChromeOS’s ecosystems. Granted, that’s not as good for Entreprise as Win32’s, but for Consumer it probably already is better, and it is much much better than WinMetro’s in all markets. On top of that, Google has been pushing Material (however iffy I find it) for both Android and Web apps, so even having 2 ecosystems/apps paradigms shouldn’t be too jarring. BTW, that shows the forethought and planning someone was wondering about recently ^^

        It’ll be a good test of disruption theory: Desktops OSes+ecosystems wildly overserve (proof: nobody’s buying PCs even though those are $100 nowadays; actually Windows notebooks are barely more expensive than Chromebooks, $10-$20; ditto Windows tablets vs Android). If it works, expect Apple to follow suit in a few years.

        Side note: as for China, Google’s apps are only on the PlayStore; locking out piracy a bit more energetically would probably motivate quite a few users to get on it. Also, some OEMs will be delighted to hand over apps+services to Google. They know they can’t make it work by themselves by now, and Google is probably the one able to pay/generate the most money from those.

        • Disruption theory does not come into this. PCs have already been disrupted by smartphones in the consumer markets. What remains is the corporate market, which does still have room for low-end disruption, but Andromeda is not aiming at this. You generally don’t apply disruption theory to the high-end of already disrupted markets.

          I agree that MS might have mismanaged their strategy, but my point is that they would have failed regardless.

          Note that ChromeOS was introduced in 2009, only one year after Android. One was introduced into a market which was saturated and dominated by Microsoft. The other entered a new market where the incumbent (Apple) only served the high-end on a few selected carriers, and where those who were left out were desperately looking for an alternative to Apple. The success and failure of these two operating systems was determined from the start, by the state of the markets that they targeted. Since they were both under the same management and took similar open-source strategies, it’s hard to argue that management competence was the differentiator.

          Applying the same analysis to Andromeda, it is clear that it will follow in the footsteps of ChromeOS, at least in the PC market.

          • obarthelemy

            I’m not fully on board with the “smartphones disrupting PCs” thing. I’ve yet to hear “I don’t need to buy a PC, I’ve got my phone”. Phones are displacing usage time, not actual purchase. Even the lower replacement rate is probably endogenous to the PC market (lower rate of HW/SW progress, new PCs can’t do anything exciting 5+ even 10+ year old PCs can’t). In poorer countries people were never going to get a traditional PC anyway because you need a whole setup, secure room, desk, chair, reliable electricity supply and ‘net connection…

            Andromeda will surge from Google’s head (*) fully-formed and -armed with a couple of rich successful ecosystems. That changes things compared to ChromeOS in 2009. Which BTW has also been very successful, it seems it sells more than Macs in the US. You don’t need a vacuum to succeed, neither Android nor ChromeOS were born in one (forget about RIM, Palm, Windows CE, Symbian… ? ), and they did. What counts is doing things better, easier, cheaper, not just new things that couldn’t be done before. There’s ample room for that.

            Dang, I must learn to speak more like a consultant. Behavioral debt must synergize with the disruption to create a positive dynamics ?

            (*) that was Athena, still, maybe a side reference ?

          • Regarding Chromebooks, the IDC source that broke the news of Chromebooks outselling Macs in the US clearly adds a note that “Chromebooks are still largely a US K-12 story.”

            http://www.theverge.com/2016/5/19/11711714/chromebooks-outsold-macs-us-idc-figures

            It should be evident that Chromebooks have NOT made significant inroads into the consumer market, and even less so into the corporate market. What it has done is find a niche in US education that is quite big right now. There is no indication that it has had any significant success breaking out into other markets.

            Web usage stats for Chrome OS are still extremely low, even in the US, and that’s for an OS that has been around for 7 years. Most likely, children are being instructed to only usevtge things when studying.

            The difference between Android and ChromeOS is truly night and day.

            Regarding people not buying PCs because they have smartphones, what we really need are studies but I can tell you that this is hardly infrequent in Japan. Maybe we live in different worlds.