Years ago, when Google launched its ChromeOS-powered Chromebooks, people wondered why they weren’t powered by Android, its existing mobile OS. It’s time to start asking those questions again.
At Computex this week, Acer showed off a prototype desktop running Android, the N3-220, opening the door to the possibility that similar products might follow. While there’s no certainty that Acer’s N3-220 will ever come to market, one has to ask: Does an Android-powered PC make sense?
On the desktop, probably not. Stretching out an Android app to the proportions used by non-touch-enabled desktop monitors would look awful—and even worse still if the app was originally designed for a phone. But on a smaller, touch-enabled notebook like the Chromebook Pixel? Very possibly. And if you designed a convertible Android-powered tablet that could quickly connect you to the Internet and Google’s suite of cloud-powered connectivity services, then you’d have all the power of a Chromebook, and then some.
Microsoft offers an inexpensive Surface tablet. Apple has the iPad. Google and its partners offer an array of tablets, and the Chromebooks to boot. An Android powered “Droidbook” isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution. The argument here is for choice: If consumers are turning to tablets, an Android-powered notebook or convertible could offer a mix of productivity and entertainment, and provide another alternative for PC makers struggling to survive against an onslaught of tablets.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
Apps might be the key
For about a year, I used a Chromebook and a Chromebox as my “daily driver,” the “PC” I used for all of my mundane daily tasks. From my perspective, the appeal of ChromeOS—and, it should be said, the MacBook Air—is its instant-on ability. As a reporter, I’ve run into too many occasions where I’ve walked into a keynote address or a teleconference bang on time, only to be forced to miss the first few minutes while Windows booted, or, worse still, applied patches.
If ChromeOS needed patching, it did so quietly in the background. Rebooting to apply the patches could be done at my convenience, and required just a few seconds to return to the tab in which I was working.
To its credit, ChromeOS walked down the aisle with the emergence of the Web. For many, Web services have replaced apps, which have replaced dedicated software packages. There’s very little I can’t do within a Web browser, provided that I’m willing to use Google’s services.
With that said, I missed my ability to play games. And talk on Skype (with those who wished to use it). And launch dedicated apps like WebEx.
On Android, all of these are available. But within Chrome, a quick glance at the apps available for download from the Chrome Chrome Web Store includes Angry Birds, SpringPad, and various plug-ins for Google services. While the number of apps available for Android varies, it’s relatively immaterial for the purposes of the argument: We know that there are about 700,000 Android apps available. That’s far, far, far more than for Chrome OS.
Now, ChromeOS does have another advantage: Native Client (NaCl), a means of running native C++ code in the browser. NaCl apps are closer to what we think of as a true app, but remain sandboxed inside the browser for additional security. In 2011, Google added the indie game hit Bastion to ChromeOS by way of NaCl. The game runs smoothly on the older $249 Chromebook as well as the far more powerful Chromebook Pixel hardware.
But one game doesn’t mean much compared to the thousands available for Android. More NaCl packaged apps are coming to Chrome OS, but Google hasn’t said exactly when. When they do arrive, they’ll certainly boost the Chromebook’s fortunes. But even then, they’ll still pale behind the number of apps available for Android.
For now, it’s gotta be small
Analysts and even sources within Google’s Chrome team reacted with something approaching horror when asked for comment about Android notebooks and desktops. Most feared that the limited number of tablet-formatted apps would look grotesque when blown up past tablet size.
“I don’t think that something larger than 12 inches would make sense, as apps would have a hard time being rendered nicely, especially considering that we still have very few tablet-dedicated apps,” said Carolina Milanesi, a consumer analyst for Gartner, in an email.
An Android-powered Chromebook doesn’t make that much sense, given that Android is designed for touch; a hybrid makes more sense. “I am getting more and more concerned that vendors are doing what is technically possible, versus what provides the best experience—or God forbid what consumers actually want,” Milanesi said.
But OEMs are beginning to experiment with everything from small form factor Windows tablets to products like the Asus Transformer Book Trio, whose keyboard and tablet each have their own independent storage and battery. When docked, it can run both Android and Windows 8. Undocked, it becomes an Android tablet.
Count Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights, among the early skeptics. “None of these devices make sense,” Moorhead said. “Android hasn’t evolved beyond 7-inch to 8-inch devices, and there are less than 5,000 applications that look good at that resolution. I think that consumers will be very disappointed with them and retailers will experience high return rates because of the dissatisfaction.”
If Samsung or others did launch a Droidbook, an OEM would almost certainly have to exercise some control over the applications displayed on the device, probably via its own app store. Android detractors will undoubtedly shake their heads over the possibility of further fragmentation, but it won’t be that bad—any tablet-optimized app should work relatively well, provided they’re designed to accommodate the landscape form factor. And most are.
Again, a “Droidbook” isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. It might be a curiosity amid the numerous tablet offerings, or something that can be designed as an accessory to, say the Google Nexus 7. But Google’s Chromebook Pixel shows that the company understands hardware design. I’d certainly like to see a convertible Android tablet manufactured with the same build quality as the Pixel. What about you?
As PCWorld's senior editor, Mark focuses on Microsoft news and chip technology, among other beats. He has formerly written for PCMag, BYTE, Slashdot, eWEEK, and ReadWrite.