HP considers dropping Windows for Android in netbooks

Google Android logoHP has confirmed that it is testing the Google's Linux-based Android mobile platform. Ars looks at why Android is an unlikely choice for the netbook market.

HP, the dominant PC manufacturer, could potentially be preparing to develop a netbook product with Google's Linux-based Android software platform. According to multiple reports, HP has confirmed that it is studying Google's operating system, but has not disclosed specific plans for adoption yet.

When Google opened the source code of Android's Cupcake development branch, the company revealed that it had implemented preliminary support for running the operating system on the x86 architecture, thus opening the door for Android to be used on Atom-based netbooks. Android could also potentially be adopted on next-generation ARM-based netbooks.

Although Android will technically run on little laptops, its suitability for such hardware is debatable. The user interface heavily emphasizes touch-screen interaction, and the platform's newly-added native x86 support appears to be intended for bringing it to MID-like tablet devices rather than netbooks.

Not the droid you are looking for... yet

The notion of a Google netbook has captured the imagination of the company's many fans, but technical experts view the idea with some skepticism. Kernel developer Matthew Garret wrote a blog entry earlier this year questioning the practicality of putting Android on netbooks and criticizing enthusiasts for jumping to conclusions. He points out that there are already a large number of Linux-based netbook platforms for vendors to choose from and argues that there is little evidence that Android is especially desirable in this space.

Despite the lack of practicality, the buzz around potential Android netbooks continues. I think that this can largely be attributed to Google fetishism. Google is popular and there is still a lot of hype behind the company and its technologies. Pundits were speculating about the possibility of a Google phone for years before Google got into the market, so it's not surprising that similar speculation has appeared around netbooks. Much of the speculation completely ignores Android's target function and technical limitations.

There are a number of the Google faithful who increasingly view Android as the ultimate solution to every platform problem, regardless of applicability. We saw evidence of this recently when OLPC announced its migration to the ARM architecture, inspiring some misguided pundits to suggest that OLPC could potentially adopt Android on their devices. As we explained then, these pundits are overlooking the fact that Android uses the Linux kernel but is fundamentally not a Linux platform—it would not be able to run OLPC's existing Sugar environment.

Android is designed to use its own software ecosystem and there is absolutely no glidepath for porting conventional desktop Linux applications to make them run on Android. If a company that is using Linux today on its existing products (HP uses a heavily customized version of Ubuntu on its netbooks) decides to adopt Android, that company will have to throw away practically their entire native userspace development investment and rebuild it all on top of Google's unique APIs, which pretty much locks the software to Google's platform.

Another aspect that is often overlooked is that Google is not broadly providing official support or integration services to third-parties who want to use Android for any and every purpose. There are a lot of mainstream Linux distributors who will help OEMs tailor distros to specific netbook hardware configurations, but that kind of service isn't available for Android netbooks yet. Support companies could arguably emerge to fulfill that need if Android does happen to take off on netbooks, but right now, adopters have to depend entirely on internal expertise.

Advantages of Android

There are many factors that are working against broad Android adoption on netbooks, but there are also some very compelling ways in which Android could deliver high value to hardware makers in the netbook market. It's a lightweight platform that is designed for low memory overhead and reduced power consumption. These characteristics impose limitations on its strength and flexibility, but could be desirable on ultra low-cost devices.

One of the biggest advantages of Android is its growing commercial third-party software ecosystem. Conventional Linux distributions are not especially conducive to third-party commercial development. By comparison, Android's insular frameworks and highly-portable development model make it easier for applications to run consistently across all Android-based products without having to be modified for each individual device. Android's consistency and lack of fragmentation largely eliminate the dependency management nightmare and many of the other similar technical challenges that hardware makers have struggled with in their efforts to adopt conventional Linux distros.

Android has a robust, built-in mechanism for commercial software delivery that is centrally managed by Google, thus eliminating the need for the hardware makers to set up their own infrastructure or modify conventional package management systems. Low-cost netbooks have slim margins and aren't individually generating enormous amounts of revenue for hardware makers. The companies that make these devices could possibly be looking to increase the profit-generating potential of the products by taking a cut of the cash from sales of content, services, and applications sold directly to users through the Android marketplace. Android makes it really easy to turn the device into a channel for consumers to buy extra stuff.

Another advantage of Android is its technical potential. Although it has a lot of weaknesses and limitations right now, it is evolving rapidly and has a lot of advanced features for mobile computing. For example, Android already has top-notch support for building location-aware applications, and the platform's strength in this area is likely going to continue to increase as it matures.

Bottom line

Android, in its current form, is not well-suited for netbooks. Companies like HP are evaluating the possibility, but it seems unlikely that they will make a major commitment to Android on netbooks in the near future. This seems especially true in light of the fact that the platform has been slow to gain traction on smartphone handsets, which is its target market.

Android is, however, an open-source software platform. The possibility always remains open that third-parties could collaboratively enhance its netbook suitability in order to make it a more practical choice in this area.

Statements like the one issued by HP should be viewed as what they are: an admission of toe-dipping rather than a sign that Google's mobile platform is ascending to universal dominance.

Source: ars technica

Tags: Android, HP, Linux, netbooks, notebooks

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