Google's Linux-based Android operating system was designed for cellphones, but excitement is building about the prospect of Google running Android on low-power netbooks.
The move would make sense. Android offers desktop OS features such as its built-in Web browser, Chrome, and support for third-party applications through Android Market.
Also, in a recent test by two researchers, Android ran well on an Asus Eee PC netbook, and Asus itself has assigned engineers to work on an Android-based netbook.
On top of that, three weeks ago Google CEO Eric Schmidt hinted that Google may subsidise Linux-based netbooks as a way to boost its online services.
Yet, despite all this, Google has not confirmed any concrete plans for an Android netbook and according to analysts interviewed for this story that is not likely to happen this year.
However, there is a significant opportunity for Google and possible peril for Microsoft if netbook prices continue to drop, says Michael Cherry, analyst with independent research firm Directions on Microsoft.
"Netbooks are driven by price more than features," he says. "If the price gap between Windows and Linux-based netbooks widens, buyers may stop caring about the operating system."
Cherry predicts that most netbooks will soon dip under $300 and says that computer manufacturers that are pushing netbook prices down will look to cheaper microprocessors such as those designed by ARM and cheaper OSs such as Linux.
"Microsoft is winning with netbooks now because people are comfortable with the Windows brand," Cherry says. "But netbooks are not a big investment for people, and they won't be willing to pay more for Windows, especially if there are restrictions like only being able to run three apps at a time."
Cherry is referring to a drawback of Windows 7 Starter, a limited version of Windows 7 for netbooks that can only run three applications concurrently, though Microsoft says that all versions of Windows 7 should be able to run comfortably on a standard netbook with 1GB of RAM and a 1GHz processor.
Another tech analyst, Tim Bajarin, president of consulting firm Creative Strategies, believes that Google will eventually extend Android to netbooks, but not until early to mid 2010. No matter when an Android netbook arrives, he says, Google will confront mainstream PC buyers who are wary of Linux and comfortable with Windows.
"I still believe that a netbook is just a smaller laptop and that the majority of them will be Windows based even if an Android version does come to market in the future," says Bajarin.
He stressed that even though netbook buyers have rejected Linux, Android could become a serious OS platform for netbooks if Google gets software developers to give it full support.
"But that's a big 'if'," says Bajarin.
Cherry agrees that Google is likely to save a showdown with Windows on netbooks until 2010, and part of the reason may be the economy.
"Even companies like Google with lots of capital are being cautious," he says. "They are worried about revenue. So this is probably not the year to get bogged down in things like putting Android on netbooks that are interesting but not necessarily profitable."
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