Where are all the Android laptops?

Summary:PC OEMs seem obsessed with making complicated, high-cost, Windows 8-baed devices. Why are none of them trying to make cheap Android laptops?

Here's a riddle for you...

Microsoft's Windows PC OEM partners are taking an approach to product design whereby they just create anything and dump it on the market. This they seem to do with the same care and consideration that a diahrreatic camel uses to choose where it's waste falls.

They will, essentially, put anything out there that they believe they can make a dollar out of.

Seeing as making an Android laptop would be technically easy, why doesn't anyone make one? Why do they keep banging out complicated (and expensive) Windows 8 hybrids?

If they want to try and reinvigorate their sales, banging out low-end Android laptops might be a better way to go.

Samsung

What got me thinking about this was the recently announced Samsung ATIV Q. This is a Windows 8 hybrid that also runs Android. Double-tap the physical Start button on the device and a full-on copy of Jelly Bean pops into view.

Imagine if you will trying to break this news to Steve Ballmer without causing him to spontaneously combust. One of his key OEM partners -- a company that has a degree of success at shipping Android devices that from some angles it looks like Google did Android as a personal favour to Samsung's accountants -- turns round and says, "we're not so sure about this New Windows vision of yours, we're going to give our customers Android".

The only safe way to do that is to escort Steve to a soundproof bunker deep on campus, fill it full of two-to-three-hundred especially cute kittens and bunnies and spend a week or so breaking the news to him gently.

Intel wants Android looking good on x86. The 10" Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 will have an Atom processor, for example. The last thing Intel wants to do is be left out in the cold by Android. I'm sure they're delighted that the ATIV Q will be battle-testing Android on Intel chips over on the Windows side of the market.

We know that you can get a decent enough x86 or ARM-based Chromebook for about $250. We also know that the problem with Chromebooks is that their web-dependent nature makes them very limited. Building the self-same kit that happened to boot to Android rather than to Chrome OS doesn't seem to be something you'd need to think about.

Ah, but Android is a touch-based, monochronistic (one thing at a time) operating system, whereas Windows and Chrome OS are traditional WIMP interfaces.

That can be fixed. There's a classic open source "we take it, hack it, and make it like you want it" project in the shape of Android-x86. Intel also have a project called Android on Intel Architecture (Android-IA). Both of them let you download and install laptop-friendly versions of Android on physical devices.

Android on traditional PC hardware is happening as my ZDNet colleague  John Morris discusses .

Amazon

One problem with this approach might be getting access to the Google Play services. Android itself is a normal, open operating system and people can do (more or less) whatever they like with it. However, in order to tie an Android device into Google's services, companies have to join the Android Compatibilty Program. Look on that page and you'll find the following statement:

Once you've built a compatible device, you may wish to include Google Play to provide your users access to the third-party app ecosystem. Unfortunately, for a variety of legal and business reasons, we aren't able to automatically license Google Play to all compatible devices. To inquire about access about Google Play, you can contact us.

Which basically means that despite giving away the OS, in order for a device to be something you can actually sell, Google has the final say. In developed markets (not so much in emerging markets), a device without Google Play is essentially useless.

As such, Google are in a great position just to say "no way!" to anyone who wants to build an Android laptop. Given that Google are keen on selling Chromebooks as their laptop-esque strategy, I can't imagine they'd be falling over themselves to make a dream of an Android-based laptop happen for any of their partners.

So how can you get around the Google Play problem?

One way would be for a vendor to cold boot their own store. Currently, the only Android device vendor with a mass big enough to do that is Samsung. In many ways it's bizarre that Samsung haven't done this anyway seeing as any investment they make in marketing their Android devices flows straight back to Google. That's not actually something that Samsung needs.

But, for whatever reason, this isn't something that Samsung has done, and I can imagine few things more likely to get Google's executive team on a plane to South Korea faster than news that they wanted to stop shipping Google Play. (The previously mentioned ATIV Q has Google Play, by-the-way.)

Another way to get an Android laptop onto the market would be for Amazon to create "Kindle Fire" laptops.

That's a slightly more obvious route because Amazon has two important of pieces in place to do this quite easily.

Firstly, there's already the Amazon Appstore for Android which is already of a size large enough to make it market-appropriate. In September last year, Laptop Magazine reported that the Amazon was offering 50,000 apps, compared to 600,000 on Google Play.

Secondly, there's the fact that Amazon knows how to successfully build, ship, and market its own hardware. Adding a laptop into the mix alongside the Fire tablets would seem to fit reasonably well into their existing strategy.

Even if Amazon were not interested in building laptops themselves, allowing manufacturers to preload the Amazon Appstore app on devices could be an interesting way to go.

I tried doing this earlier with a virtual machine I set-up using AndroVM and it worked well enough. Here's a screenshot of Evernote running on Android Jelly Bean inside of VMware Fusion on OS X. Notice the mouse cursor.

Android in a VM
Android running on my MacBook within VMware Fusion. Shown is an instance of Evernote that I downloaded from the Amazon Appstore. (Google Play is not included with AndroVM.)

Conclusion

The question is -- is anyone going to go for this in a big way?

Where the Chromebook wins in terms of the market is that it's a very simple, very cheap device. We know that PC buyers are interested in "very cheap", testified by the fact that average selling prices keep dropping. We also know that they're not very interested in "complicated", testified by the fact that nine months in Windows 8 is still not a barnstormer, "must have" product.

I totally think there's an opportunity for someone to come in and re-define the low-end laptop space as being Android-based.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: Android, Windows

About

Matt Baxter-Reynolds is a mobile software development consultant and technology sociologist based in the UK. His latest book -- "Death of the PC" -- is available on Amazon now.

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