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Microsoft, Google vie to be masters of the universal OS

Developers and IT admins have to manage and build apps for a multitude of different operating systems and device types. Windows 10 and Google's universal OS could change that.

Universal operating systems could make it easier to develop and manage enterprise applications across multiple form factors.

A universal OS that can run on both mobile devices and PCs gives IT fewer operating systems to manage and gives developers fewer operating systems to build apps for. Windows 10 is the only major universal OS on the market, but Google is expected to release its own this year, according to reports. Additionally, Apple has made macOS more iOS-like in recent versions.

"This trend of universal OSes is coming," said Eric Klein, director of mobile software at VDC Research in Natick, Mass. "This is the way the market will move eventually because it's the most logical way from an IT management perspective."

Consistency is king

The premise of Google's universal OS, Andromeda, is to combine Android and Chrome to provide a consistent experience across Google-powered mobile devices and PCs. Developers today have to build one version of an app for Android on mobile devices and another version for Chrome OS or the web on desktops. A universal OS will "clearly help the future of application development," said Mehran Basiratmand, CTO of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla.

"The single most useful feature is the availability of apps on multiple [form factors]," Basiratmand said. "This will be an important strategy for Google, given the disconnect between Chrome and Android."

With a universal OS, developers don't have to customize an app to work on different device types, said James Safonov, head of IT and information security at City Harvest, a nonprofit in New York.

The single most useful feature is the availability of apps on multiple [form factors].
Mehran BasiratmandCTO, Florida Atlantic University

"It makes for a more consistent experience for the user because you won't have to worry about who has what version of an app for what OS," he said.

What Microsoft, Google and third-party developers need to keep in mind when making apps for any universal OS is that they need to appear native to all form factors they'll run on, Klein said. A mobile app can't look like it's stretched out on a PC, and a PC application can't look condensed, he said.

Universal operating systems also help IT administrators have a more consistent management experience because they don't have to control and secure one OS on PCs and another on mobile devices.

"People do a lot with their smartphones nowadays, and from an IT perspective, you are always asked to support those devices," said Douglas Grosfield, president and CEO of Five Nines IT Solutions, an IT consultancy in Kitchener, Ont.

Inside the unified OS market

Microsoft and Google each have their own distinct advantages. Windows dominates the PC market in the United States with 74.1% market share, compared to 3.4% for Chrome OS, according to StatCounter. Chrome has found its niche in certain verticals, however, such as education. In 2016, 58% of laptops and tablets sold to K-12 schools ran Chrome, compared to 22% for Windows, according to Futuresource Consulting

But Windows lags far behind on mobile devices -- particularly smartphones, which have just 0.3% market share, according to Gartner. Android, on the other hand, is the most widely used mobile operating system in the world and has the largest app ecosystem. Its smartphone market share is 81.7%.

Having a universal OS helps each vendor spread into the side of the market where it's weakest, but Microsoft's business applications should set Windows 10 apart from Andromeda, Klein said.

"Microsoft has the advantage here because they have the Office franchise," Klein said. "To its credit, [Google's] G Suite is great, but it's still not Office." 

Next Steps

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