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Is Android turning into Windows 3.1?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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