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A dual Windows-Android machine: PC industry savior or non-starter?

Computers with two operating systems have been done before, but they've never really taken off. Don't count on this time being any different.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, speaking at CES 2014, says there will be a big push for machines that run both Windows and Android.
James Martin/CNET
It's pretty grim days for the PC industry, and the sector's next hope -- machines that run both Windows and Android at the same time -- may not be enough to save it.

The dual-operating system idea is just the latest attempt by the computer makers to juice sales, which have been on a steady decline: shipments posted their worst-ever drop last year, and on Thursday, Sony said it would exit the PC market. In the newest effort by the industry to revitalize computer sales, PCs would let users access both Android apps and Windows software with just the push of a button or the click of an icon on the screen. Users wouldn't have to reboot their PCs to switch between the operating systems. At least, that's the goal.

It may sound great on paper -- Android and Windows, the best of both worlds! -- but the reality isn't quite as attractive. Windows 8 has already been criticized as too confusing for users, and adding Android on top won't make it any simpler. While PC makers are working to eliminate the lag time when switching between operating systems, anything that's not essentially instantaneous or seamless could irritate users.

There also could be security concerns and issues with making the Android apps, built for smaller screens, work well on bigger PCs. Then of course, running two operating systems at once would require more powerful processors, something that chip giant Intel would like but consumers may not when they find out it drains their batteries faster.

"It's too confusing a proposition with too much complexity," said Neil Hand, head of Dell's tablet business. "In the end, most customers care about their applications and data, not the OS behind it."

Dell won't be making dual-OS devices anytime soon, but others will. At the Consumer Electronics Show last month, PC chipmakers Intel and AMD talked up the hybrid PCs, and already, companies such as Samsung and Asus have unveiled machines that run both operating systems. Asus' new dual-OS system shown at CES, the Transformer Book Duet, should hit the US market by mid-2014, but it's unclear when Samsung's Ativ Q, announced in June, will be available. Intel, at least, believes dual-OS machines could really take off in the coming months and years.

"Our [computer] customers wanted more [than Windows]," Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said during a keynote at CES. "We wanted more choice: Windows for some usage, Android for others."

If thin and light ultrabooks and tablet-notebook hybrids haven't helped PC sales, why bother with two operating systems? Many companies are looking for any way to get their products to stand out from the crowd. And they know that many consumers turn to Android or iOS for tablets. If consumers are forced to choose between buying a new laptop or a new tablet, they're often opting for a tablet.

For most companies, however, it's a matter of apps. That's one reason companies such as Lenovo and Hewlett-Packard are making PCs that run Android rather than Windows. Microsoft has made big strides in building its Windows 8 and RT store, but it's still missing some popular programs such as Spotify and Amazon Instant Video. And while Microsoft undoubtedly has big changes in store for future Windows updates, a dual-OS system could bridge the gap until that occurs.

Lenovo has experimented with dual-OS machines before and is considering making them now to benefit from Android's wider set of apps and broader ecosystem, said Jay Parker, Lenovo's president of North America.

"I believe there will be a place in the market for those types of products," Parker told CNET in a recent interview. "But I don't think they will have the mass market type of appeal."

Figuring out how to deal with this push -- and how much or how little support to give it -- will be a top priority for Satya Nadella, who just last week was anointed as Microsoft's new CEO. Microsoft initially opposed dual-OS systems, but it's starting to change its stance, according to people familiar with the matter. And according to reports, Microsoft has considered trying to get Android handset makers to run Android and Windows Phone on the same device.

Asus' Transformer Book Duet runs both Windows and Android. Xiomara Blanco/CNET

Chris Flores, director of communications for Windows, told CNET in a recent interview that it's unclear just how well dual-OS devices will sell and that having two operating systems on one device could be confusing for consumers. However, Microsoft is watching the market closely.

"We're all looking at it, wondering what the ideal consumer use case is for such a thing," Flores said. "Choice is always great for a consumer, but I think Windows is a fantastically integrated, deeply polished product."

Flores' favorable view notwithstanding, Windows 8 has not done well. Rather than saving the PC industry as hoped, the operating system, released in late 2012, ended up alienating customers and hurting Microsoft and the entire computer sector. The software company since that time has taken steps to address customer issues and fix problems with Windows 8.1. But even with the changes, the operating system continues to face shortcomings.

The hope for Intel and all the other companies working on dual-OS systems is that moving to such a strategy could turn things around in the computer industry. While Krzanich said PC makers want more choice, what they actually want is to provide customers everything in one package -- essentially, giving them the opportunity to not choose between Windows and Android. Because increasingly, when consumers must choose, Android wins.

So will combining Android with Windows prove to be a winner? For now, it looks to be more of a gimmick than anything else.