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Opinion 243 Shares 22 comments

Is Android turning into Windows 3.1?

As you get older, you start turning into your parents: one day you’re a hip young twentysomething with smooth skin, excellent hair and firm buttocks, the next you’re looking in the mirror and you see a cruel caricature of your mum or dad staring bleary-eyed back at you. Something similar happens in technology. Which is why Android is starting to look a lot like Windows.

Windows on phones: horrible then, pretty unpleasant now. / © AndroidPIT

I’m not the first to comment on it: one former Microsoft manager tweeted that Android N’s Multi-Window mode proved that “every operating system evolves until it resembles Windows 3.1”. And if you dig around inside Android N you’ll find a feature that really, really resembles Windows: freely resizable floating windows. It isn’t on by default and might not make the final cut for the Android N release - multi-window was in the Android M preview but was held back for N - but it’s clearly coming.

What’s next? Clippy the paperclip? Minesweeper?

Nobody wants Windows on their phone

If you’re old enough to remember the struggles of life without smartphones, you’ll probably remember Microsoft’s attempts to bring Windows to phones - first as Windows Mobile, then as Windows Phone. The results weren’t pretty, because it turned out that phones were nothing like PCs, the things people wanted to do on their phones were different to the things they did on PCs, and PC operating systems are probably best left to PCs.

So why on earth is Google trying to bring the Windows UI back? Wasn’t it mocking Microsoft about Windows 10 just a few months ago?

We suspect the answer may be that Google isn’t thinking about right now. It’s thinking about the future, and Android’s place in it. And unfortunately that future looks awfully like the past.

AndroidPIT split screen
We're not luddites. Split screen mode is really useful. / © AndroidPIT

Your cell is a caterpillar

Mobile devices are taking over the world. A whole generation has grown up with the smartphone, not the PC, as their primary computing device - and increasingly, those phones (and tablets, which are essentially the same) are being used for more and more things that PCs used to do.

Imagine that the smartphone is the Very Hungry Caterpillar, eating its way through every stand-alone device. For me, it’s replaced the iPod, the point and shoot camera, the in-car stereo, the GPS and the CD player. Why shouldn’t it replace the PC too?

For more and more of us, that’s already happening. When Apple’s newest iPad is more powerful than its newest MacBook, has an optional keyboard and is sold with PR shots of smiling office workers using Microsoft Word, it’s clear where this is all heading. And that’s where multi-window support in Android comes from: Android wants to replace the PC too, and it thinks that to do so it’ll need to offer a more PC-like interface.

I’m not sure that’s a great idea. To understand why, you need to visit my kitchen.

horror jessica 2
Don't go into the kitchen! / © ANDROIDPIT

My kitchen explains everything

I’m a sucker for kitchen gadgets. Show me something that’ll cut, chop, spiralize, sear, saute and stir-fry and I’ll buy it, use it once and put it on top of a cupboard with all the other kitchen gadgets I’ve wasted money on.

The list of do-everything gadgets I’ve bought is very long, but the list of things I actually use regularly has just two things on it: a knife and a skillet.

What my knife and my skillet have in common isn’t just that they’re good. It’s that they’re focused. They concentrate on doing one thing well. The do-everything gadgets do everything, sure, but they don’t do everything well.

Mobile apps - the good ones - do one thing very well without fuss or distractions, and desktop OSes have increasingly copied them: first Windows and then OS X embraced split-screen working as a more focused alternative to multiple windows, and Mac apps in particular tend to offer distraction-free full screen modes that bring them closer to the experience of working on a smartphone or tablet. So it’s strange that as desktop OSes are getting more like mobile OSes, some people want mobile OSes to become more desktop-y.

android n multi window
Multiple windows can be useful, but should they float too? / © ANDROIDPIT

Let’s keep things simple

Do you really want a smartphone or tablet OS that looks like Windows 3.1?

The thing is, some people do. But we need to ignore those people, because they’re the kind of people who get bad tattoos, do stupid things to customize their cars and have horrible haircuts.

I’m not a luddite, or anti-multitasking. Running two apps side by side makes sense on big-screened phones upwards - for browsing Reddit while watching YouTube, copying from a document to an email, all the other simple things that it makes easier - and the split-screen stacks we saw in the ill-fated WebOS, were pretty nifty too. However, multiple overlapping, floating windows seems like unnecessary PC-style complexity to me. And complexity is why so many of us abandoned PCs for mobile in the first place.

What do you think? Is there a case for multiple floating windows in Android? Let us know in the comments.


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  • CJ Brown 5 months ago Link to comment

    Thank you for taking the time to write this article

    As a new OS becomes available from Android each year, one has to deal not only with the fact if their Android smartphone / tablet will receive this OS update? But if said OS will compliments how you choose to use your device(s) ...

    I keep re-watching Joseph Kosinski's TRON Legacy & Oblivion, because I see a lot of integrated technology I'd fancy using around the home AND while mobile (driving, biking, being a pedestrian)

    I guess the future will truly reveal if Google ensurers every manufacturer of an Android device maintains a timely OS update, an if said OS update is worth it (ie I <3 Windows XP Pro - I still do - I can't stand Windows 10 and loath how Microsoft shoved it down your throat!).

  • nice post

  • Very informative article .thanks for sharing

  • It is a part of touch wiz. I do use it from time to time and if I could sort my Firefox bookmarks on mobile, I wouldn't need a computer. Just a bluetooth keyboard and TV. More mobile friendly Web sites are on the way. Pulling out my Note when I am on top of a break press is more convenient then climbing down several times and
    running to a computer to print something.

  • I want to watch the MLB app while answering email, etc.

  • Well if tour like me and u have a bad haircut and ugly tattoos then u also cast your phone screen to a TV and use a Bluetooth mouse, keyboard and gamepad and wow who would have thought all them root mods are turning into a bad ass operating system.

  • Paolo 6 months ago Link to comment

    Just because YOU don't want multiple windows and want super large Android phones and tablets to literally be nothing more than a larger screen for Clash of Clans and Jessica Jones doesn't mean you can run around saying those of us who do should be ignored because "we're the same cut of people who put fake Chrome and wings on a Corvette!" That's an asinine assertion!

    Multiple windows is the ultimate realization of what Android IS - a workhorse! And its not like being forced down anyone - it can be disabled like it's not there, yet folks who want it CAN USE IT.

  • "For more and more of us, that’s already happening. When Apple’s newest iPad is more powerful than its newest MacBook"
    - This might be the most misguided, delusional nonsense I've read all week.

  • Talen 6 months ago Link to comment

    windows phone is actually now quite awesome. people just don't realize it

  • Had no idea this feature was compulsory- suspect a lot of people will simply never At least one custom ROM has used a similar feature and Google's overriding strategy in making Android open source might be to harvest ideas from the ground up. Horrible haircuts & bad tattoos aside I very occasionally find this feature useful when using several simple apps (such as a calculator & currency exchanger) in unison.

  • The good thing about new futures is the choice to use it or not. I would really like to have the ability to have 2 apps open at once

  • No mobile system can replace the pc just because of gaming. No "real" games are made for android.

  • Remix OS was the first to add resizable windows to Android. The company is called Jide, they have several hardware products running their Remix OS and also provide a version to be used off a USB drive - all those old laptops are super-fast when running this unbloated OS. I don't think is has the level of calibration Windows has but few use this aspect...

  • No, I don't want multiple windows on Android; we just don't need it.

  • There's a demand for it or else it wouldn't be happening, also uh look at Phoenix OS and Remix OS Android for PC's they also have by default floating re-sizable windows, a start menu and a windows like taskbar, right there's your big screened android's or heck even the 20" through 32" inch Android tablets, or did you just conveniently choose to forget all those existed so you could go off on a tirade and knock improvements.

  • Unlike majority of your readers I really like windows on my smart phone I use extensively windows 10 and I am able to sync my three tablets and desktop but zI do use Gmail as my preferred email service and google as my preferred search engine. I do have a tablet with Android o/s which used daily that provides me with access to apps not able to get working satisfactorily on Windows, all my music was via Amazon on both Android phones and tablets before Windows 10 only my desktop has always been windows. Tried Mac and iOS phones but quickly rejected them didn't like them at all.

  • You dont have to use the multi window feature you can turn it off

  • I've never owned or needed a PC, but... .these days I do need internet access etc so.. my Nexus 6 is basically used as a PC, and is as small as I'd want to use for PC duties, on a 6" screen multi window for me would be cool and mildly useful but I'm not too bothered.
    Android right now especially Nexus devices are just about perfect for my simple needs.

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