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Switched On: The clamshell mystique

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

In 2009, Switched On discussed the potential of Android on netbooks, finding an uneasy match between what was then high-flying hardware and still nascent software. More than two years later, though, the tables have turned in terms of momentum. As netbooks have settled into a relatively small part of the overall PC market, Android is leaping beyond the smartphone. In doing so, though, it is focused on tablets, not clamshells,

There are a few ways today to get Android on a diminutive notebook, but all have major flaws. On eBay, for example, you can buy cheaply made 7-inch Android netbooks for about $100. These are little more than novelties with poor ergonomics and battery life. Or one can download the Android x86 distribution and fire it up on an Asus Eee or other netbooks, but this is a hobbyist pursuit.

New software from Bluestacks lets you run Android atop Windows, but this nullifies many of Android's advantages such as quick wake times and the long battery life the OS enjoys on ARM processors (this situation may well improve running Bluestacks on Windows 8). And there have been a few Japanese Android clamshell efforts such as the 5-inch Sharp Lynx and the 7-inch NEC LetsNote Touch. Both are pricey -- at least as imports -- and the LetsNote Touch has a resistive touchscreen.

As for other ARM-friendly operating systems, HP -- which produced the Compaq Airlife Android netbook sold in Spain prior to buying Palm -- had held out hope for a native webOS netbook, but that concept was certainly axed with the rest of the company's webOS device roadmap.Then there's the MeeGo-based X101 from ASUS that shows what kind of sleek design one can achieve with a mobile OS. However, it has arrived just as the MeeGo lineage is being rolled up yet again, this time to a new OS dubbed Tizen.

If you want keys clacking up characters to a Honeycomb home, iPad or Playbook, there's a whole mouthful of Bluetooth options such as standalone keyboards, integrated keyboard cases and things like the Clamcase that can produce a "shamshell." On the Android side, ASUS has won fans with the integrated keyboard of the Eee Pad Slider that is arguably functionally equivalent to a clamshell and the more cosmetically similar Eee Pad Transformer with its detachable battery-packing keyboard. But it seems no one dares take on the form factor so wildly popular when running Windows or Mac OS.

In a recent conversation with an ascendant Android tablet maker, the company said that it has no plans to pursue an Android clamshell nor did it think such a device was on any competitors' roadmaps. Sure, the traditional Android experience has involved a touch screen and using one with a distant display can be awkward or tiring, but that hasn't stopped PC makers from putting touchscreens on Windows notebooks or even desktops. And then there is the Windows Netbook Curse. Microsoft likes to remind us that Windows netbooks quickly trounced those running mostly homegrown Linux variants. But, again, that was long before the iPad showed the viability of a mobile OS on a netbook-sized screen or Honeycomb sent a group of licensees scrambling for features to differentiate.

It is a humorous paradox that consumers should increasingly embrace keyboards on an Android tablet but forever reject an Android notebook. The clamshell is a brilliant form factor that clearly has potential beyond today's duopoly. With Windows 8, Microsoft is asserting that an operating system can traverse notebooks and tablets. What is good for the goose, though, can't seem to entice major competitors to take a gander.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director and principal analyst of the NPD Connected Intelligence service at The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.