I've written several articles lately that have been increasingly critical about some of the shortcomings of Android and Android devices. I've talked about how device flaws and ongoing platform issues like battery life and application management hurt the ability of Android to compete in the mobile device market when compared to the alternatives.
I've also written about how Windows Phone 7 (WP7) already delivers a much more robust, stable, efficient, and polished platform out of the gate than Android does after several major revisions. I've discussed how many applications for Android are stuck in a rut of just adding features and not finding innovative ways to deliver traditional apps in a "post-PC" world.
All this got me thinking about Windows 8 and about tech bloggers writing articles about that post-PC world, and I wondered if we're really in it or not. After considering it for a while, I think that we're not in a post-PC world, and these are the reasons why I feel this way.
No post-PC world to be found
I've been attempting to do some basic things on my ASUS Transformer lately. These are things that are easy to accomplish and so common they're taken for granted on legacy PC platforms. My experience with the WP7 platform led me to realize my full dissatisfaction with the stock Android e-mail client. This led me to a search for alternatives.
In my search, I realized that all the alternatives simply added missing features to the basic layout of an Android e-mail client. None of them actually improved on the design for a mobile device. As I mentioned, neither does Apple's iOS. There is a form-follows-function principle in action here.
But Microsoft, with WP7, illustrates that there is also a lack of innovation leveraging the form factor and new interfacing features of mobile devices. Smaller touch screens that are frequently accessed in portrait layout are a different ballgame than e-mail clients on a desktop or laptop, which generally has a larger, non-touch screen, landscape display. Microsoft thought outside the box in developing their e-mail client. Apple and Google (and Android developers) did not.
Following this encounter, I decided to play around with a classic 8-bit PC emulation on my ASUS tablet. Conceptually, with a clam-shell design, an integrated keyboard, and two USB ports, the Transformer should be an ideal Android platform for retro emulators. However, in execution, for a number of reasons, it is not. Android developers face some real challenges.
There are so many different devices with so many different configurations, that hardware fracturing actually does make it a difficult platform to develop a single app that translates well to all available devices. In this case I tried multiple different emulators and had difficulty with all of them. Some recognized USB joysticks and d-pads but didn't map the keyboard right. Others mapped the keyboard right but did not recognize joysticks and d-pads. Others were simply unusable.
In addition to that, emulators are a class of application that creates a certain set of potential legal concerns. In an app environment where the operating system developer can effectively act as a gatekeeper on what apps make it to the market, emulators can be blocked. We've already seen Google take some action against emulator developers that discourage further development on Android.
After several purchases and a lot of time and effort, I still wasn't getting satisfactory results from my attempts to turn my Transformer into a portable retro-computer. It was at this point that I thought of my Lenovo S10 Netbook, which has been sitting abandoned for weeks since the repair of my Transformer keyboard dock.
I dusted the Lenovo off and powered it up. After weeks sitting neglected, the system fired up with 98% of the 8-hour extended battery life still available. To be fair, it was off and not in standby mode, but still, I don't think even the iPad could match that kind of battery longevity.
I quickly booted into Windows 7 and copied my retro-disk images from my Android to an SD card and onto the PC. After that, a quick web-search found a highly rated, free, Windows 8-bit emulator. I downloaded and installed the app and loaded everything up. Setting up the paths and configuration was a breeze, because everything used the familiar graphical Windows Explorer shell.
On the Android emulator, I had to use an aftermarket File Browser to copy files and to figure out paths, and I had to manually enter paths using Linux directory architecture. Windows was far easier and consumer friendly, despite the fact that Android is seen as a far more mainstream-consumer-oriented platform. In general, this is true, but when trying to do difficult things, that Linux foundation of Android becomes a liability.
In no time at all I had the emulator up, with a disk image loaded, killing orcs and casting spells in a classic-era 8-bit FRP game, which was operating nearly flawlessly. At 1.6GHz, the single-core Atom processor was powerful enough to handle the input, graphics, sound, and calculations of the original device's 1.023 MHz processor without breaking a sweat. Because PCs are so standardized, the default keyboard mapping worked flawlessly and USB devices were instantly recognized.
The dawn of a new age
Which is when it dawned on me: with a touch-screen-oriented interface but still retaining the "legacy" core of IA86 code compatibility, Windows 8 might just be the platform to deliver the careful balance between what I want from my Android tablet and what drives me back to legacy notebook PCs. Windows 8 may end up well positioned to deliver detachable tablet devices that dock into clam-shell keyboards to become full-fledged traditional laptop/netbook designs.
I think that this is the logical future for almost all notebook format systems. The ASUS Transformer illustrates that a touch-screen device makes a lot of sense when your display sits directly attached to your keyboard. It also exemplifies how some tasks are simply better for a tablet display.
Where the Transformer disappoints me is that it is generally a byproduct of Android. As an example, the Transformer still suffers from very laggy input of text in all web browsers even after several updates from ASUS. The web-browsers (native, Dolphin-HD, and Firefox) have trouble dealing with some sites with embedded video, like CNN. There are a lot of little issues with Android (and with iOS) that drive me back to a legacy PC. As long as that remains the case, it is hard to argue that we're in a "post-PC" world where "Windows is irrelevant."
Some might argue that most consumers don't care. However, I think that we'll increasingly see users becoming disenchanted with the limits of the lightweight, post-PC device operating system platforms and their limitations.
I think a lot of users are putting up with going without certain features that these platforms and devices can't seem to deliver like a traditional PC-era operating system. They are hoping that eventually these platforms will mature and become better at delivering in areas where they are lagging. If Windows 8 can step in and deliver all the advantages of the "post-PC" era while still offering the full-fledged experience of a traditional PC, with tight integration with other Microsoft platforms and products, there may be a lot of pent up demand for just such a solution.
What do you think? Could Windows 8 bridge the gap between lightweight, consumer-oriented mobile devices and full-fledged, powerful, and mature desktop OS platforms, or is the PC platform at the end of its life span? Let us hear your opinions in the forum.
Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his professional role is as a Linux support engineer for a fast-growing Linux/FOSS consultancy group. You can follow him @dcolbert on Twitter or his personal blog, located at http://donovancolbert.blogspot.com.