Android netbooks on their way, likely by 2010

[Update: Since posting this story, we've had a lot of inquiries from readers, with questions ranging from whether Android is ready for laptops and full-scale PCs, why Android can't rely fully on Linux, and so on. See our follow-up Android FAQ post.]

The image above shows a netbook Asus EEEPC 1000H running on Google’s mobile operating system Android. Huh? You thought Android was for mobile phones, right? Well, as we’ve written before, Google is planning to use Android for any device — not just the mobile phones.

Besides writing as freelancers for VentureBeat, we also run a startup called Mobile-facts. It took us about four hours of work to compile Android for the netbook. Having done so, we (Daniel Hartmann, that is) got the netbook fully up and running on it, with nearly all of the necessary hardware you’d want (including graphics, sound and the wireless card for internet) running. See the images below for further impressions.

Here’s the significance: Imagine the billion dollar market at stake here if Google can make good on this vision. Netbooks are basically small-scale PCs. For Silicon Valley myriad of software companies, it means a well-backed, open operating system that is open and ripe for exploitation for building upon. Now think of Chrome, Google’s web browser, and the richness it allows developers to build into the browser’s relationship with the desktop — all of this could usher in a new wave of more sophisticated web applications, cheaper and more dynamic to use. Ramifications abound: What does it mean for the stock price of Microsoft? Microsoft currently owns the vast majority of the desktop operating system market share? In recent weeks, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer repeatedly dismissed Android as competition to Windows Mobile.

Back to our experience in compiling Android for the Asus netbooks. It shows us that there is a big technology push to let Android run on netbooks under way.

Based on the progress we see in the Android open source project, we believe that getting an Android netbook to market is doable in as few as three months. Of course, the timing depends as much on decisions by the partners in Google’s OHA alliance and other developers contributing to Android, as it does on Google itself. It is these partners — including device makers and carriers — who decide how and when to adopt Android for different devices and markets. As we note below, Intel is one such contributor working on the adoption of Android to a notebook.

A mass production of the netbooks would be possible between three to nine months, depending on circumstances, two sources familiar with such matters told us. However, as we evaluate the progress of the various OHA projects, we expect conditions for a mass-market netbook to ripen in 2010, rather than in 2009. Right now a variety a of OHA members, announced and unnanounced, are working on projects to set up a sufficient ecosystem.

One important part of the ecosystem would be to have a set of well-functioning applications (an office productivity suite, for example). Google is mostly leaving applications development for Android to third parties (applications which run in the browser like Google Docs being the notable exception). At the rate things are going, we don’t see enough of these third parties developing applications for Android netbooks in the next 12 months. There have been recent predictions about Android netbooks appearing in 2009.

Background

In researching for our Android coverage at VentureBeat, we’ve participated in various Android developer groups and frequently play around with Android to understand some of the issues behind IT. The trigger for us to do the compilation was some news on the Android Porting Google Group. In it, Google developer Dima Zavin claimed a couple of days ago that he ported Android to an Asus EeePC 701. So we decided to have our own go at another Asus netbook.

“Compilation” is a process which needed for a machine such as a PC to be able to use an operating system and understand code. Zavin was compiling Android for a regular Intel CPU, which is what the Asus netbook runs on. The G1 phone, the first commercial mobile phone that Android runs on, however runs on a different processor: the ARM CPU. Taking Zavin’s work as credible, we assumed that compilation wouldn’t take that much time.

Android’s Linux core makes experimental compilations like ours possible. For example, compilations require something called drivers. Drivers are programs which are needed to communicate an operating system like Android with various computer hardware. There are already a lot of Linux drivers, and Linux is able to run on a lot of different computer architectures. Otherwise we’d have needed to build our drivers from scratch.

Android Netbooks coming, but more likely in 2010

We already argued back in August that Android wants to be on any device, not just a phone. Android is designed to run on any device in a category widely referred to as “embedded devices.”

The fact that various OHA partners have already developed Android enough to easily work on our netbook may be considered evidence enough that Google is getting increasing buy-in from industry players to realize this vision. We found two additional indicators that technology is being developed in this direction.

For one, we discovered that Android already has two product “policies” in its code. Product policies are operating system directions aimed at specific uses. The two policies are for 1) phones and 2) mobile internet devices, or MID for short. MID is Intel’s name for ‘mobile internet devices,’ which include devices like the Asus netbook we got Android running on.

The context for our finding can be found here. The important line is this one:
PRODUCT_POLICY
android.policy_phone
android.policy_mid

Another indicator for a coming Android netbook is that Intel already had the right drivers for MID chips in place. You can view some parameter information here.

Overall, we’re impressed with the relative ease of the compilation. Android code is very “portable” and neat. Mainy observers, specifically Symbian supporters, have opined that Android would have problems because of its “open source” nature, leading to “chaotic code” and tendency toward desintegration as developers take the OS in different directions. If true, that could give more controlled OS’s like Symbian, not to mention the iPhone’s, an advantage. Based on our experience with Android, we don’t see that danger mid-term. Quite possibly, Android competitor Symbian does not see that problem either, as the Symbian Foundation also decided to go down an open source path.

Pictures and Observations

After some additional work, the normal webkit browser is working fine on our Asus, and so is the music player. At first, we had problems to get both networking and sound running, though.

The Asus screen size is approximately 5 times bigger than the G1 screen. An adaption of the screen size was not an issue as Android did the adaption automatically.

The open source version of Android does not include Android Market. Therefore we haven’t yet downloaded any apps.

In “Settings,” we stumbled upon the feature “Select locale.” In it, we noticed that the following translations of Android are under way: Czech, German, English (Australia, United Kingdom, Singapore, United States), Spanish, Japanese, German and Dutch. Expect speculation on devices launching in these markets soon.


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