Google, Microsoft, and Apple are all slamming full-speed into the same wall at the same time: The future they’ve built is so pleasant (or at least lucrative) that nobody wants to leave for the next thing.
Reports have been circulating that Google is working on a hybrid operating system that combines the best of Android and Chrome OS, while simultaneously promising to keep supporting the two independently.
It’s the perfect example of this dilemma in minature.
Google, a company famously and perpetually focused on the next big thing, is alread thinking about what comes after Android and the current smartphone market. And yet, Android is the most popular operating system in the world.
Google’s Pixel C, Microsoft’s Surface Pro, and Apple’s iPad Pro all show that these companies are thinking along similar lines about the future of computing. The big bet here is that the shrinking tablet market will give way to gigantic supertablets, primed for productivity with hefty hardware and keyboards.
Unfortunately, it also highlights a sad truth: The next few years of major apps from Google, Apple, and Microsoft alike, are all going to be awkward, and likely pretty much suck.
Google tries to push things forward
Just look at the Google Pixel C, the tablet/laptop hybrid announced in late September.
At the time, I got a little hands-on time with the Pixel C, and found it to be lacking — just a nice Android tablet with a nice keyboard, but otherwise nothing special next to the similar Microsoft Surface Pro and Apple iPad Pro tablets. Android doesn’t even support multi-window views, like Windows and (more recently) iOS do.
With the benefit of hindsight, though, the Pixel C basically gave Google’s whole game away. As a product, the Pixel C is just kind of like, sure, whatever, do your thing, Google. But as a taste of Google’s Android-centric vision for computing, folding in Chrome? It makes a lot more sense.
That said, the Pixel C also demands Android developers to rethink their apps, to better take advantage of both the larger screen size than most of the devices they’re used to, and to integrate better keyboard functionality.
But until Google sells a bunch of Pixel Cs, developers don’t have a lot of incentive to put in the time and energy. Their existing Android apps run just fine on existing devices, thanks, and unless the Pixel C is a surprise smash hit, there’s no reason to bother.
And so, even if you buy the Pixel C because it’s shiny and new, there’s likely to be a dearth of apps that really take advantage of it.
Take the long view, and you can see that Google always intended the Pixel C to be the first taste of a cross-platform future. But in the short term, it’s not especially compelling.
The same boat
Both Apple’s iPad Pro and the Microsoft Surface Pro and Surface Book have similar issues.
Microsoft’s issue is a little more existential: Its strategy with the new Windows 10 hinges on the Windows Store, an app market that lets developers code their app once and sell it on any Microsoft device, from PCs to tablets to smartphones to, eventually, the Xbox One and HoloLens holographic computer.
But Windows 10 also lets you run any old Windows app, from Windows 7 and 8 forward. Which means that for the majority of developers who build Windows software, there’s no real reason to scrap them and start over with a Windows Store app.
Apple’s iPad Pro has a different struggle.
Apple is aiming its new giant-size tablet at creative-types and businesspeople, just like the Surface Pro. But the regular, mainstream iPad hasn’t been especially lucrative for productivity software vendors.
The whole App Store economy has gotten customers used to paying less than $10 for tab;et apps, where the desktop versions of popular business productivity software like Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop on Mac and PC can sell for hundreds of bucks.
That means super-serious developers aren’t tripping over themselves to make sure their apps run great on the iPad Pro, either.
The long game
Google, Apple, and Microsoft are all playing a long game here.
If they keep pushing their next-generation devices at people, eventually developers will have to catch up — first slowly, and then once it hits critical mass, all at once.
It’ll be slow. In some ways, the big companies are victims of their own success. Again, look at Google, which is bascially forced to continue supporting Chrome OS so as not to alienate the PC manufacturers happily selling Chromebooks.
And so, it’s going to be a long, slow, protracted tightrope walk: Support the old thing until the new thing picks up enough steam to carry its own weight.
Until then, get ready for some awkward fits and starts, especially in productivity software, as developers gradually work their way around the new normal in computing, as dictated by Apple, Microsoft, and Google.