Dell netbook rumor prompts questions about Android

Android-based netbooks may be Web-centric devices with touch screens

Reports that Dell might use Google's Android OS in a netbook raises questions about what the device might look like and whether Android is ready for use beyond smartphones.

Software vendor Bsquare appeared to have leaked the news Wednesday that Dell is developing an Android-based netbook. In a press release, Bsquare said it was porting Adobe's Flash Lite technology to "Dell netbooks running Google's Android platform." The release has since been pulled from Bsquare's Web site and Dell has refused to comment on what it called "speculation." But most observers think there is probably no smoke without fire.

Android is a Linux-based OS developed by Google for use in mobile devices, primarily smartphones. It includes an OS, middleware and some basic applications, and has a toolkit that developers can use to build other programs on top. Hewlett-Packard has confirmed it is testing Android as an option for netbooks, and some enthusiasts have already loaded the OS on the devices.

It's easy to see why computer makers might be interested. Android is free to use, which means they don't have to pay a license fee for Microsoft's Windows OS, and it is open source, so they can customize it to build the types of products they think customers want.

Since it's designed by Google, the OS naturally is friendly to Web-based applications. Google offers software libraries that make it easy to provide quick access to online services and data. The Google Maps library, for example, allows developers to add mapping capabilities to Android applications.

PC makers could design netbooks with distinctive user interfaces that provide one-click access to online services such as Google Docs and Google Maps. Android can also provide information about the location of a device, so netbooks could include applications that let users see the locations of their friends, for example.

Industry analyst Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates, said Android's Web-centric design could lend itself well to buying new software on the Web, in a similar model to Apple's App Store.

But he wondered whether Android is ready for use in netbooks. Moving an OS for mobile phones to netbooks is an ambitious plan and will present some challenges, he said. Acer echoed the same sentiment when the company's president and CEO, Gianfranco Lanci, said last week, "It's too early to say if we're going to see Android on a netbook in the near future."

Avi Greengart, research director for consumer devices at Current Analysis, put it more bluntly: "If an Android netbook were launched today, it would be a nonstarter," he said.

The idea of an Android-based notebook makes sense, but the OS has to show that it can be successful in smartphones before it moves to another device, he said.

The OS and even typical netbook hardware designs may need to be revamped for Android to work, said Ronnie Schwartz, cofounder and chief technology officer of mobile software development firm IntuApps.

Applications developed using Android are streamlined for mobile phones with smaller touch screens, and few netbooks today have touch screens, he said.

Those are the problems companies like Dell and HP may be trying to solve, Kay said. Android is still evolving for smartphones, and it will go through the same process for netbooks.

"That story is yet to be written," Kay said.

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