When Microsoft becomes the soul of a Google machine

Windows has dominated the laptop market for decades. Android, on the other hand, has dominated the smartphone market for only about four years with lower market share in tablets. These days, however, if you’re looking at a new device powered by a Google or Microsoft operating system, there’s a chance that you may think you’re seeing double. Increasingly, Microsoft is putting Windows on devices that are essentially identical to their Android or Chrome counterparts, sometimes even bearing the same device name. These doppelgängers — while still relatively uncommon — are emerging in categories where Google is strong.

We saw evidence of this a few months ago when HTC’s One M8 reemerged running Windows Phone in place of Android, which it was running when it launched. HP followed suit with the launch of the colorful $200 Steam 11 laptop, which — apart from color options —  looks almost identical to its upcoming 11” Chromebooks. Then came Lenovo’s new kickstand-equipped, Intel-powered Yoga Tablet 2s — announced first with Android and, within a week, Windows.

Lenovo Yoga HD+

Becoming part of a hardware twin set provides two benefits to Microsoft. Even as the company increasingly acknowledges the importance of serving customers on multiple platforms, they provide demonstrations that Windows can compete in virtually any form factor and can serve to raise awareness of other potential partners. By the same token, it reinforces the need for Microsoft’s own hardware efforts. If [company]Microsoft[/company] is to be increasingly relegated to sharing the same devices with a [company]Google[/company] host like Android or Chrome, it must turn to its Surface and Lumia teams to create competitive distinction.

Microsoft’s strategies of co-opting and competing work like a carrot and stick with hardware partners. Working Windows onto devices that also ship with Android or Chrome represents gentle encouragement to adopt Windows on form factors where they might not considered, while Microsoft’s own devices represent potential lost revenue if they don’t.

Microsoft has long been an agent of commoditization, driving down the margin of PCs. Over the past decade, many brands have largely or completely disappeared as the companies behind them left the business or were acquired, including Compaq, Gateway, eMachines, Compaq and Sony. In facing the struggles of the PC business, IBM sold long ago, Dell withdrew from the public markets and HP stands to split into two separate companies with the one that sells PCs being bolstered by printer consumable revenue.

And while Android has had — or is on a path to have — a similar effect among hardware companies, it has also served to commoditize the operating system. For the first time since at least the demise of OS/2 on the desktop and the old Palm OS in handhelds, Windows has serious, even dominant, competition in some of its device categories — so much so that it is chasing hardware designs developed for other platforms.

Vizio 8 Inch Android Tablet

These two-faced devices are compelling for the hardware companies. They are investing significantly in these form factors and simply can’t optimize too much for Microsoft in areas where it has low market share. This was a lesson that HTC learned with its colorful Windows Phone 8X and 8S, which were built from the ground up for Microsoft’s OS.

Still, in some cases, the moves may have limited or even negative impact. The HTC One with Windows Phone, for example, shipped months after the Android version and just in time to encounter an onslaught of powerful competitors such as the iPhone 6, Galaxy Note 4 and Verizon Droid Turbo. Even HTC’s own Zoe app, which it is bringing to iOS and Android apps, won’t run on the Microsoft-flavored M8. Then there’s the Chromebook-like HP Stream that threatens to cannibalize other Windows laptops across more sectors than Chromebooks do.

Ultimately, Microsoft wants the best of both worlds, allowing consumers to choose from a wide selection of avant garde devices (like HP’s Sprout) exclusive to Windows. And in many PC form factors, it enjoys that leadership, especially versus Chrome OS. We’ve yet to see Google’s “other” OS break in to the two-in-one hybrid portables that both it and Intel are pushing hard. But while it may be a useful mindshare exercise, Microsoft ultimately gains little from merely demonstrating that it can fit into device classes where Google still has strong market momentum.

This post was updated 11/18 to clarify the market that Microsoft has dominated for decades.