This week’s announcement of Android on Windows inevitably brings comparisons to the Windows on OS/2 mistakes of IBM a generation ago.
I don’t believe Android on Windows will hurt Microsoft the way OS/2-Windows interoperability issues hurt IBM. We’ll revisit the OS/2 mistakes to see why this time will actually be different.
We’ll start with a history lesson.
The OS/2 Windows 95 Mistake
OS/2 was co-developed by Microsoft and IBM in the 1980s, but it was ahead of its time. I worked at IBM at the time, and part of my job was to provide PCs for our organization. It wasn’t going well. Most of the employees used a terminal emulation card that turned the OS/2-based PC into an expensive terminal that needed up to 5 minutes to boot.
The marketing organization went wholly rogue and loaded Windows 3 instead of OS/2. When the company driving the product doesn’t want to use it, you have a problem.
IBM created a compatibility layer that allowed Windows programs to run on OS/2 – and developers just built for the Windows platform as a result. Hence, OS/2 never got to critical mass in applications. IBM tried to give the product away by putting OS/2 discs in cereal boxes, forgetting that they still had to pay a royalty to Microsoft for every one of those “free” disks. Suddenly, only Microsoft was making money off a product that was meant to be a competitor to Windows. Other than someone caught in IP theft, I’ve never again seen a competitor make more money off a competing product than the product’s owner.
When Windows 95 came out, IBM created a compatibility layer for it but didn’t ship it, thinking it could force developers onto OS/2 instead. That decision effectively killed OS/2.
Why Supporting Android Won’t Hurt Windows 11
Like any competitive effort, a set of steps must be taken to get a critical mass of customers using the platform. Until you reach that critical mass, nothing else really matters.
At the heart of IBM’s OS/2 problem, Big Blue inherently didn’t understand the PC market at the time and was still mainly running on aging mainframes. IBM’s PC segment wasn’t on board with the OS/2 strategy, and, as I noted, inside IBM, we weren’t using OS/2 either. The installed base of OS/2 users who used OS/2 applications was insignificant and nowhere near the number to drive developers to the platform.
In short, OS/2 was a zombie product in that it was being marketed like it was viable, but it had effectively failed in the market. IBM’s senior executive staff were unaware of this even though it was pretty apparent inside IBM. Louis Gerstner, who had been employed as a turnaround CEO, fundamentally didn’t get tech, let alone what was going on with PCs, making him ill-suited to turn this part of the company around.
Since most users lived in a Windows world, when IBM decided not to support Windows 95, it was left with OS/2 for Windows 95, effectively ending OS/2’s chances for survival. That ending had been foreshadowed a few months earlier when IBM dramatically cut marketing support for the offering.
Android on Windows Doesn’t Repeat History
Windows exceeded critical mass in both deployments and application support decades ago. Apps for Windows tend to be better suited for PCs, making Android in Windows more of a bridge into the Android ecosystem for apps, like social media and communications, that users want to use without pulling out their phones.
Finally, Android isn’t positioned as a desktop OS alternative; Google has Chrome with limited Android support in that spot instead. Chrome OS is the challenger to Windows, not Android. Thus, Microsoft has created a competitive edge against Chrome while not opening up the Windows platform to cannibalization by Android.
Android Support is a Windows Advantage
It is interesting to note that the Chrome OS comes at Windows in much the same way that Windows came at OS/2: it is the simpler of the two products and has ease-of-use advantages. However, unlike Windows, Chrome OS still struggles for critical mass in application support, making the Chrome OS’s bridge to Android even more critical.
Eventually, we will likely run all our apps in the cloud, but until then, this ability to run smartphone apps on a PC gives users the benefit of not having to always couple their smartphones to their PC. This coupling often feels a little awkward and can break when you buy a new phone.
The risk to both Chrome OS and Windows is tied to the eventual cloud hosting of the PC user experience. As both Alphabet and Microsoft are major cloud providers, that doesn’t put them at risk either.
So, in the end, Android support for Windows should be appreciated by users who want certain Android apps on their desktop, and the move doesn’t create an OS/2-like risk for Windows. IBM’s OS/2 loss simply doesn’t apply in this case.
Further reading: Will Windows 365 Change the Future of PCs?