Switched On: When netbooks suffer from 'Droid rage

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Despite powering only a handful of handsets available on the market, Android has already had a significant impact on the competitive landscape in smartphones. Looking at its primary rivals that run on a variety of hardware from multiple manufacturers, Android has provided a free and highly customizable licensed challenge to Windows Mobile, And competition with the Google-developed mobile operating system may have also provided the final push of Symbian into the world of open source.

Just because Android has turned the tables, though, does not mean it should be used on devices that rest on them. Recently, the infatuation with Android has led to much speculation and supplication regarding the operating system as an alternative on netbooks and less proven "gaptops" that live between the smartphone and the notebook. But while blazing benchmarks may erase any speed records set by netbooks running Windows, they can't erase what amounts to a weak case for Android on these devices.

Recent history shows that the overwhelming majority of consumers want Windows on their netbooks. This has become especially true as the market has shifted from the quasi-appliance like original Asus Eee, with its suboptimal 7" screen, to most netbooks running 10" and now even larger screens and vendors such as Dell and HP that are pillars of the Windows hardware world have grabbed market share. Even these manufacturers have more to gain by going with their own twist on Linux. HP, for example, has created a unique and differentiated experience with its Linux environment for netbooks. It will take some time before various Android implementations are so unique. It's unclear why an Android-based netbook would fare much better than Linux-based netbooks have.

Indeed, the experience might well be worse. Android is designed for mobile phone, not notebooks. Android's browser can hold its own against other mobile browsers, but it's no Google Chrome, or for that matter, Firefox for Windows or Linux. Furthermore, Android has screen resolution limitations that would certainly come into play using a netbook with an external monitor. And, because Android is designed for handsets, it has few if any compelling applications for netbook users. In contrast, some of its more distinct applications, such as Locale and ShopSavvy, are heavily context-dependent, as is befitting a good smartphone application.

But if there really are some good Android apps that would be at home on a desktop, that's still not necessarily a strong argument for using Android as a primary netbook operating system. An alternative and more promising approach being offered by Canonical, which develops Ubuntu with its open source community. Canonical plans to enable Ubuntu to run Android applications, which might appear in windows within the host Linux OS. And if netbook makers want that Google halo around their product, they can install the gOS operating system. While it is not developed by or endorsed by Google, it certainly features Google's properties while being free from the "with Google" branding restrictions.

Finally, there are the smaller devices that may be pocketable or lack a keyboard. Call them MIDs or smartbooks. Android is a better fit for these devices since their form factor and usage are more similar to those of smartphones, and Android may become a great enabler for manufacturers of portable media players looking to offer more of the versatility we are seeing from the iPod touch and soon Zune HD. The open question here, though, is how large this market will become as cheap touch-screen smartphones continue to proliferate.

So stick with smartphones, Android. There's lots of opportunity there for the near-term, and as the screens and market share of Android devices grow, they may just encourage development of more kinds of applications that would cross over better to the laptop world. Today, though, Android simply lacks the muscle, momentum, and marketplace to be a strong contender on netbooks.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.