With the twin caveats that I’m an Ubuntu user and the admission that I have yet to actually hold a device of any type actually running Google’s Android software, I have to be honest: all this talk of Android netbooks baffles me.
Not the part of getting it to run on the platforms, of course: the appeal of the challenge is obvious, even to me. No, what I can’t quite grasp is this: what need would Android fulfill in the netbook market that couldn’t be better and more efficiently served by alternate platforms. Why anyone would want one, in other words, and favor it over either Linux or Windows? And I suppose I should throw OS X in there as well, as I’m told that it will run on the MSI hardware.
No question, Android is an interesting project from virtually any angle. The Linux base layer gives it an appeal to certain audiences, the cleanroom JVM reimplementation is fascinating for any number of reasons, and its market significance cannot be overstated…as long as we’re talking about handsets. But I must be missing something that makes it suitable for the Netbook market, because from here it just looks like a poor idea.
It’s all about the applications. As usual.
Look, I’m no big fan of rich clients, but to paraphrase Jason Priestley’s character from Tombstone: “I’m sorry, we got to have some apps.” Android’s got a browser, true. But it’s not Firefox. And while handset users are used to not having any choice in the matter (if I could use something besides mobile Safari, which crashes like that’s its job, I would), desktop users are. If I’m going to be using a desktop – and especially if I’m going to rely heavily on the browser as an application platform – I’d like it to be one that I choose.
Why doesn’t Android – and why won’t it – have Firefox? Because Android applications have to run on top of Dalvik, Android’s JVM implementation. So until you reimplement Firefox on top of a JVM or find a way to bypass it to access the underlying operating system, no Firefox. Which means you can count out OpenOffice, too. And Pidgin. Probably Skype as well. And so on. Virtually every staple application Linux or Windows users are used to using on their desktops will be unavailable.
To be sure, there will be Android alternatives available. Just as many of the Linux applications are alternatives to their Windows cousins (think OpenOffice). But who’s going to be building for Android on netbooks, at least initially? My guess is that the bulk of Android development will be focused on the handset market, not netbooks. And while I admire some of the iPhone application implementations, I certainly wouldn’t use them over a version designed for my Mac Mini.
Application volume would seem to be a massive issue for Android based netbooks. There are tens of thousands of applications available for anyone running, say, Ubuntu Netbook Remix. How many are there for Android? Dozens? Hundreds? And that’s just looking at the Linux apps: imagine what the Windows crowd might think. Who’ve become accustomed to using one of the myriad of applications available for that platform.
Ultimately, the question I can’t answer is this: if you had to choose between:
a.) Linux and the C, C++, Java, Python, etc applications of your choice and
b.) Linux and the Dalvik applications of your choice
Why would you pick b? Or put more simply, what precisely does the reimplemented JVM buy you on the client side? What about Android will make Java desktops succeed where they’ve failed so often before? And no, user experience doesn’t count: you don’t need a JVM to have a good UX.
Anyway, if you’ve got an answer to that question, I’d love to hear it, because as I said, I’m kind of at a loss.