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As Apple and Microsoft unite mobile and desktop, where will Android go?

Sam Spratt

Will Google's Android get left in the dust as Microsoft and Apple gradually unite their respective mobile and desktop operating systems?

With Windows 8 and OS X Mountain Lion, Microsoft and Apple will see to it that their respective mobile and desktop operating systems are intertwined more elaborately than ever. But what will happen to Google's Android in the meantime?

"We went through and just took a logical pass at what the user is going to experience using these products to make it all make more sense together," said Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, during an interview with the Wall Street Journal after the announcement of OS X Mountain Lion, which borrows many features from iOS.

"We see that people are in love with a lot of the apps and functionality here," Apple CEO Tim Cook remarked while pointing at his iPhone, during a separate interview with the Journal, "so, anywhere where it makes sense, we are going to move that over to Mac." Given Cook's words, it's no surprise that Apple's OS X Mountain Lion includes some of the most popular features found in iOS such as its messaging and notification systems.

Windows 8 heavily borrows features, look and feel from its own mobile counterpart, Windows Phone, but in the case of Microsoft, it's the popularity and functionality of the desktop that Microsoft is trying to use to build the mobile platform in its operating ecosystem.

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.) 

Both Microsoft and Apple are intending on providing their users with as seamless of a cross-device experience as possible and soon their respective smartphones, tablets, desktops, laptops and other devices will practically bleed together. Google, on the other hand, can't offer the same experiences because its Android operating system lacks a clear desktop counterpart.

In Apple's ecosystem you'll perhaps start an iMessage conversation on your iPhone, only to continue it on your MacBook Pro, using Mountain Lion's new Messages app. Or maybe you'll adjust your personal settings on your Windows 8 desktop and switch over to your tablet, to which they've already synced via Windows Live. At some point you'll begin to lose track of where one device begins and the next ends — and that appears to be exactly what Microsoft and Apple want.

By gradually blending mobile and desktop into something that resembles one single operating ecosystem, each company will be offering an experience rather than a pile of devices. And as this effort is carefully coordinated, customers will inevitably begin approaching their purchases in the same manner — by looking at the entire experience rather than at individual devices.

My iPhone gets along with my Windows-based media center just fine, my Xbox 360 will interact with my Mac-based laptop after a bit of coaxing and I can show my dad how to use an iPad as an input device for a Windows-based computer. But why should I put any effort into doing any of those things when I could have a collection of devices which already function in sync — right out of the box? By relying on Windows Live and iCloud, respectively, Microsoft and Apple will provide such an experience.

But, I ask again, what will happen to Google's Android in the meantime?

Over time, fewer and fewer users will pick up individual devices that clash with their main operating ecosystems. Instead they'll build on what they have. It's inevitable, because human nature always wins out — and it's certainly human nature to take the easy route, which in this case is the one filled with devices specifically designed to interact with each other to the point of their operating systems blending together.

Windows Phone will have Windows 8, iOS will have OS X Mountain Lion and Android will have ... what?

If you had the urge to answer that question with "Chrome OS," please give yourself a swift smack upside the head on my behalf. Despite the high hopes we had for Google's open-source operating system, it's full of kinks, offers minimal functionality and doesn't exactly interact with Android devices seamlessly. Above all that, it launched on devices that cost more than full-fledged Windows laptops, which only served to highlight the downside of the minimalist approach. Chrome OS simply can't be considered the counterpart to Google's mobile operating system.

Perhaps your next suggestion is, "well, then what about the Chrome browser?" If that's the case, it's time for another — albeit gentler — smack. As fine and dandy as the Chrome browser is, it still doesn't resolve the key issue, which is that users require a full, seamless experience. Downloading a single app, a browser in this case, won't magically create that.

Google needs to further expand its cloud-based offerings and entice users to make Google products an even bigger part of their desktop experience, just as they already do on Android. This shouldn't be a huge leap for the company and it shouldn't be a huge leap for users who already favor Google's offerings. (Just count up the number of times you recall Windows Live and iCloud misbehaving in the past little while and compare it against the number of times Google products have been down and you'll likely agree.)

If — and I do mean if — Google can keep attention focused on its services rather than any specific operating system, then Android should be able to maintain its phone market share. But as Apple grows its tablet lead, and Microsoft launches its first real concerted mobile effort, Android will no doubt suffer as users grow to enjoy the comforts of real ecosystems, and stop thinking about the cost benefit of any individual device.

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