Sorry, Two Operating Systems Aren’t Better Than One

By  |  Wednesday, March 9, 2011 at 4:22 pm

Leo Apotheker, HP’s new CEO, says that in 2012, every HP PC will run the company’s WebOS operating system–presumably in conjunction with Windows in most cases, although no details are available just yet. ViewSonic has an Atom-powered ViewPad that dual-boots between Android 1.6 (a version so old that I’ve forgotten what its dessert-themed codename was) and Windows 7. Lenovo continues to demo its Windows laptop that lets you pop out the screen and use it as an Android tablet. Other companies are also working on split-personality, multiple-OS computers. More than one of the hardware makers that are doing this is using the phrase “the best of both worlds” to explain why it makes sense for one device to run two operating systems.

Is it just me, or is this a profoundly lousy idea?

Look, I’m not opposed to the idea of multi-booting different OSes on one machine in all situations. Actually, my primary computer these days is a MacBook Air stocked with OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, Windows 7 and a beta of OS X 10.7 Lion. I also see the virtue of products such as the lightweight, Linux-based Splashtop, which many PC makers pre-install on their systems to let users boot into a browser without being forced to load up Windows in its entirety. And we don’t yet know enough about HP’s intentions with Windows and WebOS to form a definitive opinion about them. (I’d love to discover, once we know what’s up, that the idea is more appealing than it sounds.)

But the operating system sits at the heart of any hardware platform. Providing two them will surely result in an experience that’s not Chitty Chitty Bang Bang magical so much as Pushmi-Pullyu ungainly.

Right now, Google’s Honeycomb–not yet widely available and not on ViewSonic’s tablet–is the first version of Android that’s suited to tablets. Windows 7 is not truly tablet friendly; Windows 8, due late next year, is the first version that might be. It’s not yet clear whether HP’s WebOS is PC friendly, at least if “PC friendly” involves working well with a keyboard and mouse and running the sorts of programs people want to use on PCs. Various combinations of iffy OSes won’t add up to one good experience. They could add up to an experience that’s less satisfactory than if the same computer made do with one inadequate OS.

As with a lot of things about tablets and other newfangled computing devices, one piece of advice still seems sensible in many cases: Wait! I usually address that sentiment at consumers who can’t decide whether to buy now or bide their time. But in this case, I’m talking to the hardware manufacturers who are cobbling together Frankencomputers rather than holding off until they can put one well-rounded, capable, appropriate operating system on their devices.

Of course, I could be wrong. If any of the Windows/Android tablets turns into a certifiable hit, I’ll admit i misjudged the situation–and I’ll eat a ViewPad by way of apology.


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10 Comments For This Post

  1. FMguru Says:

    The reason that the iOS ecosystem works so well for consumers is that it largely gets out of the way and lets people get to whatever they want to do (watch movies, play Fruit Ninja, check Facebook, whatever) as quickly as possible. Their competiors are responding with devices that…require you to choose which operating system to boot into whenever you turn it on, with two completely separate user interfaces and file systems and identity keychains and everything.

    Time to buy more AAPL, I think.

  2. Rob Says:

    It does seem inevitable that, due to the fragmentation of devices/OSs and significant differences in development environments, there will be a “must have” app that is platform dependent. To my knowledge, multiple operating systems require partitioning a hard drive. I would be reluctant to partition my already small (and expensive) HD space on the tablet. Perhaps, there is a software solution in the future? The parallels app?

  3. @silner Says:

    This article consisted of a series of assertions, none of which were backed up with reasons. "not Chitty Chitty Bang Bang magical so much as Pushmi-Pullyu ungainly" ? What on earth are you talking about? Technical specificities, please

  4. nick dafo Says:

    i like the idea of dual booting systems but only for geeks who like to experiment with different stuff, not casual consumers. they wouldnt have much use for it.

  5. J Baker Says:

    You know what this reminds me of? Steve Jobs talking about calligraphy. Or learning pre-digital typography. Say you want to learn about letterforms; Letraset is a way better tool for learning than Illustrator or some other typing program, because it forces you to commit to a rhythm the moment you put one letter next to the other. Letraset (or hand-drawn type, or woodblock) is a pain to change after the fact, so you have to know what you're doing, and stick to it. These multi-OS tablet "strategies" are actually anti-strategies, basically ways of not making a decision, hedging their bets rather than committing to a course of action.

  6. @scottaw Says:

    I think that for tablets, the added complexity necessarily introduced by a dual boot device is diametrically opposed to what tablets are supposed to be about: simplicity and ease of use.

    They don't get it. They think the tablet experience is a rectangle with a touch screen, and that software is secondary.

  7. craig kenesk Says:

    MS has been the 800 pound gorilla and took advantage of the situation. HP's move could make things fun, from a quality of product perspective. Developers and the buying public will ultimately drive whether this was a good decision by HP or not. Craig Kensek

  8. Javier Fernandez Says:

    The key is not if having two OS in one machine is good or bad idea. The key is how they interface each other. If the "light" OS can access the data of the "heavy" one you will be starting the Windows only when you really need it and will use the "light" OS (WebOS or Android or light Linux distro) for task like reading email, surfing the net and social networking.

    This is not the first generation of this kind of equipment. HTC Shift got Windows Mobile 6.0 (I think) and Windows Vista on it. The problem that drove the Shift to catastrophy was the Vista on an Atom. Nowadays HTC Shift with Windows 7 and Android could be a success even with an Atom on it. The HTC Shift second problem was that the connection between the WM and the Vista was minimum and even controlling a email account in both systems was a pain in the neck.

    But lets imagine the HTC Shift with android instead WM. What about having the contacts, notes, calendar, email etc.. at the cloud, I mean Gmail. That plus having access to common storage in the machine plus the storage in the cloud (let's say dropbox) could be a great combination.

    The idea is having the tablet (or the PC) in stand by mode of android (not possible in Windows 7) and receiving emails and social networks notifications with a few battery power losing. Now when you are going to use, let's say, Office you startup the Windows 7 and start working, then when you finish hybernate Windows and back to android. So the tablet is never powered off but you still receive the notifications like in a smartphone.

    That's the idea behind this dual boot tablets or PCs. Will Windows 8 have this stand-by network-aware mode? We don't know. If possible then two OS in a machine are not needed.

  9. David Says:

    How is this any worse an idea than the Atrix and that docking station?

  10. Tom B Says:

    If PC vendors were actually, you know, SMART, they've have totally ditched Windows for a modern, high performance OS– a LINUX variant– eons ago. Like sometime during the XP years when it should have been clear MSFT was never going to get any OS mojo (now proven with the anemic Vista and Win 7). Adding a phone OS to the mix– as HP proposes– does not make a lot of sense to me.