The Android Netbooks Cometh

With all the hopes many in the FOSS community have pinned to the increasingly popular netbook, it’s no great surprise that the topic is a contentious one. So, when the first Android netbook was spotted recently, excitement on the blogs went through the proverbial roof.

Computerworld’s Seth Weintraub seems to have been the first to shine a spotlight on the Skytone Alpha 680, which was apparently announced a few weeks ago in Hong Kong.

Further investigation revealed that the ARM-based machine will cost around US$250 and should be available within three months.

The diminutive device’s specs are “anemic,” in Weintraub’s opinion; nevertheless, they were more than enough to fire up some red-blooded conversation.

‘The Price Tag Is Disappointing’

“It’s nice to see companies experimenting with putting Android on netbooks, even though this first one seems like something of a dud (not enough RAM, battery life problems),” wrote Theli on Digg, where the topic was discussed not just once but twice in separate threads. “That is to be expected, though. It’s clearly an early adopter’s device. I’d probably wait until some of the bigger players (Asus, Acer, MSI and HP) get involved. Prices should come down, and the design should settle on something that works.”

Similarly: “Given the prices of current netbooks, the $250 price tag is disappointing,” agreed Binarydemon. “Unless performance or battery life is significantly better, I would just spend a few more bucks for x86 compatibility. They need to start hitting that projected $100 price point.”

‘Very Nice’

With more than 1,400 combined Diggs and 130 comments — in addition to those on the Computerworld blog — the topic was clearly an inspiring one. So, we here at LinuxInsider took to the streets for some more perspective.

“Very nice,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider. “I wonder how hard it would be to reformat that machine. It would be a good replacement for the full-sized notebook I use for network analysis and configuring equipment, since it would probably be a lot easier to carry.”

Along similar lines: “So far Android looks to be a Good Thing,” Slashdot blogger drinkypoo agreed. “You can run a real Linux alongside Android or you can (theoretically) put Android on arbitrary hardware.”

Not the First?

Whether the Alpha 680 is the first ARM-powered netbook — as the Computerworld article claims — is far from clear, however, drinkypoo told LinuxInsider.

In fact, there is currently a trademark suit in progress over the rights to the netbook name, he noted — something that “was invented by Psion, which had an ARM-powered ‘netbook’ before anyone knew what a netbook was.”

The claim that Skytone was first “seems to have been made only by the article’s author, Eric Lai, who should probably acquaint himself with Wikipedia before he is permitted to write any more articles for Computerworld,” drinkypoo added.

‘A Really Great Thing’

“I’m excited to see Android escape the T-Mobile G1, and after a sad, disappointing love affair with the Kogan Agora Pro that never gotreleased, I’m ready for Android to make itself available to me on anew consumer device,” Monochrome Mentality blogger Kevin Dean told LinuxInsider via email.

“My skepticism is not with Android, but with netbooks in general,” Dean added. “My view is that Linux stands a GREAT chance of ‘domination’ in the embedded market because mainstream users don’t yet have a set idea of a ‘phone interface,’ whereas on desktop PCs, people reject Linux because the expected user experience is quite strong.”

Netbooks, of course, fall somewhere in between.

Android could be “an excellent operating system” for netbook users seeking mobile Internet devices, Dean explained. “In this realm, I see a ton ofpotential, useful and quirky applications deployed across a mostlystable and consistent development platform. This could be ‘A ReallyGreat Thing.'”

Unfortunately, “most people see netbooks today as laptop replacements,” he added, “and because of the expectation of Windows, Android netbooks will fail, because they’re not marketed clearly as ‘not a laptop replacement.'”

The Trouble With Flash

Prices will also have to come down, many bloggers felt.

“The price is too high,” Slashdot blogger hairyfeet told LinuxInsider.

“I can get a netbook with XP Home for $300 — less if there is a special at someplace like Woot, which just last week had [an] EEE at $159,” he noted. “At those prices, why would I adopt an OS which, frankly, is virtually devoid of apps?”

However, at the sub-$200 — or, even better, the sub-$150 — price point, “you have the makings of a hit,” hairyfeet added. “The battery life of 12 hours plus could help sell it there.”

Flash video could be a sticking point.

“Last I checked, Adobe had Flash ARM support on its ‘to do’ list but hadn’t released anything that works, and we frankly don’t know which — if any — ARM chips they will support until the release of code,” said hairyfeet. “With so much of the Web embracing Flash, this will be a hard hurdle to overcome.”

‘$150 Sweet Spot’

Still, assuming that problem is solved and the price point drops, “Linux might have a real shot at this market, as the only Windows that supports ARM — WinCE — simply isn’t up to the job,” hairyfeet observed.

Of course, “if this ‘ultra low end’ market turns out to be a big seller, Intel has the Atom and Celeron able to compete in that space, and most folks will be willing to forgive battery life in return for Windows,” he predicted.

“I would say $150 will probably be the sweet spot for these units; at $250-plus, they are simply too close to the price of an Atom-based netbook — and why would a consumer spend that much when they can get one that runs all their programs?” he wondered.

‘The Year of GNU/Linux!’

“Forget $250 — China will produce $100 machines this year and ARM will be a part of that,” blogger Robert Pogson asserted by email. “There is no place for that other OS at these prices.”

The world “will go to small and portable because it costs less, and the least cost will be with GNU/Linux or other free software,” Pogson told LinuxInsider. “Expect an intense period of readjustment at M$ as they try to push [Windows] 7 onto the world.”

Netbooks, in fact, “are what makes 2009 The Year of GNU/Linux,” Pogson added. “They perform better than other hardware at portability, price, power consumption and ease of use. They make a clear statement to the world that we do not need to continue with the Wintel treadmill.”

AMD and Intel “need to use their 32nm processes to produce chips for these things, or someone else will,” he opined. “ARM will eat them up as it is, and ARM will spread upwards in the PC world to notebooks/desktops/servers. ARM is already multicore; is it not feasible to produce server chips with 1024 cores with this technology?”

In short, “expect rapid changes,” Pogson concluded. “Wintel is fighting back with feature bloat, but they cannot continue to sell bloat without severe cuts in price.”

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