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What am I Missing About Android Netbooks?

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.

Why?

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.

Categories: Laptops, Linux.

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  • http://tieguy.org/blog/ luis

    you forgot the install base for (a) and (b). (b) seems likely to have millions of consumer-level users in the relatively near future; (a) has (probably) millions of users now but almost all are hackers and engineers with very little sense of good UX, etc. It isn’t nearly as appealing a market for developers of new applications (and that’s leaving aside the superior tooling and modern APIs/language of Android.)

    I’d also note that iPhone has the same basic problem (substitute ObjC for Java) but it already has more interesting end-user oriented applications than (say) gtk or QT do.

    (This is a timely post; I was thinking about the same issue this morning and really think Android is a big threat for gtk/QT.)

  • http://tieguy.org/blog/ luis

    (And of course I’m presuming that what really matters in the long turn is developer interest; I think that is correct but might be wrong of course.)

  • http://muellerware.org Patrick Mueller

    It’s highly unlikely that any desktop app will port over, if even the compile/link succeed, to handheld platforms. My Nokia N800 has a version of Firefox on it, but you’d never in a million years guess it was Firefox. Someone even did a GreaseMonkey ‘port'; same base code, but the way extensions are handled is different, so it needed a rewrite.

    Handheld platforms are different. Too different to hope desktop apps can just be ported over.

    Not sure about netbooks tho (don’t have one). Seems like I want to run desktop software on those puppies, not handheld.

    OTOH, I suspect there will be some interesting Android apps that I’d like to run as first-class applications on my desktop, just like I run other little gee-gaw apps on it today. Which you can’t do. Running in the emulator doesn’t count.

  • dave

    If netbook = “cheap laptop” (and for some, or even many, it does) then I’d agree with you.

    If netbook on the other hand implies some combination of: ARM processor, good battery life, small yet high-DPI touchscreen, instant-on/sleep, small and/or soft-keyboards, highly mobile and pocketable device, location aware via GPS, permament internet connection via 3G and a range of price points then I see plenty of exciting opportunities.

    Obviously this moves into iPod Touch and Nokia N800 territory but on the other hand the people who led the netbook charge seem to be reatreating back into boring Windows laptop-land. Possibly because kinda-cheap, kinda-underpowered Windows laptops turned out to be a good yet unexpected market for them.

    Optimistically though I see several signs of others entering this new market where rule number one is no windows and the opportunities that arise once that leap has been made.

    Looking at it from the other direction: why does Ubuntu feel the need for MID and UMPC specific projects? Why are Mozilla doing Fennec? At what point does the effort of rewriting things for the unique UI, hardware features and use cases of these devices meet the cost of starting from the other end and building on what’s provided by Android or Maemo?

  • http://redmonk.com/sogrady sogrady

    @luis: “you forgot the install base for (a) and (b). (b) seems likely to have millions of consumer-level users in the relatively near future; (a) has (probably) millions of users now but almost all are hackers and engineers with very little sense of good UX, etc.”

    true. but the only organization i’ve seen that does a really good job with UX is Apple; Android hasn’t really distinguished itself in that regard, from the reviews i’ve read. is it easier to use than say Netbook Remix? sure. but it’s generally been implemented on handsets, so the design scope is a wee bit narrower.

    “It isn’t nearly as appealing a market for developers of new applications (and that’s leaving aside the superior tooling and modern APIs/language of Android.)”

    if we’re talking about the handset market, i’m with you. but i’m not sure reinventing the wheel with regard to desktop applications is all that attractive.

    “I’d also note that iPhone has the same basic problem (substitute ObjC for Java) but it already has more interesting end-user oriented applications than (say) gtk or QT do.”

    i view the iPhone as fairly unique here, and i think the development kit and, perhaps more convincingly, the app store, have been successful primarily because of the device. i’m not sure that the iPhone’s 10K strong application base is going to be duplicated any time soon by another product, because the device itself simply occupies a space of its own in the market.

  • http://redmonk.com/sogrady sogrady

    @Patrick Mueller: i agree, which is one of the reasons i’m struggling with the question of appeal. granted, the desktop experience on both Linux and Windows has its issues, but there are just so many useful applications, it seems unlikely to me that they’d be abandoned without a really compelling driver (as there was for Linux desktop folks that couldn’t abide running Windows).

  • http://redmonk.com/sogrady sogrady

    @dave: the one area where we agree and i’ll probably expand on further is the touchscreen. if we get to the point where touchscreens are the rule rather than the exception on netbook LCDs, we might very well see a legitimate driver for Android adoption on that platform.

    as for your other questions:

    “why does Ubuntu feel the need for MID and UMPC specific projects?”

    probably because the UI needs improvement anyway, and this an area particularly well suited to it. i’d still rather issue tweaked flavors of linux than try to recreate its application library.

    “Why are Mozilla doing Fennec?”

    i don’t see this as relevant, given that netbooks are – in all likelihood – going to be running regular FF rather than Fennec.

  • scott

    Android apps *will* be portable between device types because the applications are made up of simple, loosely coupled components that have a first rate integration mechanism. A component that is designed for a phone can easily be re-purposed within the context of a compound document on a netbook. Think Cyberdog and OpenDoc (which Jobs killed off because they were a threat to NextStep).

    Android is all about users customizing their devices. And for those users that are not capable or willing to do this there will be pre-fabricated compositions or templates to make this task painless. In addition to Android components ported to TVs and Vehicles I also expect to see the the Java Applet reincarnated. Users will not have to learn to jump through new hoops for every device they own.

    Also, as a developer I don’t care if my Java code runs on a JVM or on Dalvik. And don’t count out anything. Skype announced they are coming out with an Android client.

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  • http://9fans.net/ maht

    I have a G1 and can choose between Chrome and Opera. I also have a Linux EEEpc 901. Skype on the G1 is a kludge as it dials a UK landline rather than using the G3 data connection. I’m writing this comment using the 901 with the G1 as a WiFi access point.

    The GPS is my favourite gadget on the G1, smooth integration with Google maps is great. I’d love an Android netbook, esp. if it had a built in phone!

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