Where are all the Android laptops?

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?

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TOPICS: Android, Windows
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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

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23 comments
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  • my opinion

    the otherday i tried to install whatsapp in my Mac but it doesnt work the way. ok I know it's because of the mobile app. but my phone is sony with android many time i have to find portable versions of apps from www.softdownfast.com to complement the original android app in my mobile. it's frustrating the android sometime compared with my Ipad.
    Jasmin He
  • Laptops are for grown ups

    who need something as compatible as possible with their workplace (or school) software and networks. The one entity that does puzzle me is Google itself - the "cloud thing" it is trying to do with Chrome OS is completely compatible with Android and the attractive app ecosystem for it - why is Google wasting time, focus and money on Chrome OS when it has Android?

    Microsoft is trying like heck to catch up to the Android (and of course Apple) proprietary software market with its RT project and is even building that directly into desktop/laptop Windows.
    I2k4
    • Good point

      "why is Google wasting time, focus and money on Chrome OS when it has Android?"

      You have to take that as even Google doesn't think an Android based tablet would sell.

      If they did, it would be the Androidbook right now, not Chromebook.
      William Farrel
      • Interesting Troll here

        Android tablets sell better than any other tablets. They didn't think ANdroid laptops would sell, and I agree with them. But Chrome OS is a piece of trash.
        Jimster480
        • Android is only capable of a tablet.

          Not a laptop. I am not an Apple fan but when I compare my son's android tablet to my wife's iPad, it's night and day. The android tablet is not that great. It's a far cry from the ipad to be sure.
          I don't think it would fare any better on a laptop and what woudl it give you? People who buy laptops are looking for a machine that is capable of attaching to their network at work and doing useful things, like with MS Office.
          Microsoft Excel itself can pretty much satisfy most medium to smaller businesses BI needs with just one program and a free add-on called Power Pivot. That is only the beginning of the power you get with a windows laptop.
          I don't see android bringing much to the table.
          xuniL_z
  • Question

    Is there really high demand for an Android laptop?
    Michael Alan Goff
  • Profit

    I think if there was enough profit in it vendors would make Android based laptops. The problem is there just isn't a big profit margin in it. Netbooks were popular but there was only a razor thin margin. The industry managed to kill them (artificially imposed limitations on processors, memory, screen size) and replaced them with expensive ultrabooks to drive up profit margins. Why sell an Android laptop for $300 when you can sell an ultrabook for $500 - $1,000?
    BoloMKXXVIII
    • Indeed..

      Windows 8 Ultrabooks are not selling in high enough quantities to make any of that profit margin. Their best bet is to drop them below the price of the Macbook Air, because if you're going to charge at or close to the Macbook Air price, consumers may as well just get the Macbook Air and have the original "ultrabook" upon which all of the copy cats were designed.
      Jorgen_Roth
      • Jorgen, you honestly feel the "Air" was the first ultra light notebook?

        Or are you saying it was the first one that is good, like a good Apple user would?
        Apple has never been first at anything other than taking other peope's ideas and being first to the patent office.
        They are, or I should say were, under Jobs, very full of guile in that way.
        xuniL_z
    • Might be

      Because people would rather spend $300 instead of $1000?
      danbi
  • How dare companies want to make profits?!

    Wait, companies are trying to make money so that they can stay in business? HOW DARE THEY?!

    Seriously, though, the fact that Windows 8 hasn't quite set the industry ablaze isn't that shocking. How long did it take for XP to take everything by storm? Also, is there any sort of "must-have" program/feature that is exclusive to Windows 8 that would drive adoption of the platform in large quantities? Eventually people will get new systems, and the new systems will likely feature Windows 8.

    As to the drive to raise prices, that might be because companies actually want to be able to keep the lights on. I know that's a shocking concept, but making a profit is kind of the primary determinant of whether a company will stay in business in the long term. As much as you or I might like getting cheap systems, something has to give--build quality, working conditions, crapware, and customer service all cost money. You can pay now or pay later, and with all due respect, I'd rather take the hit in the short term rather than face long-term problems.
    Third of Five
  • They're called tablets.

    Matt, if you think Android based laptops will sell, why not start that business instead of asking why nobody's making them?

    Granted there's no risk to you if you talk some OEM into making one and it doesn't sell, which could be why you're asking instead of doing, but it appears that OEM's don't share your"optimism" in that they'll sell.

    So there's your answer.
    William Farrel
    • He very well might...

      He very well might, if you chip in a couple of million dollars...
      Jxn
  • ASUS Transformer Series

    Just get the optional docking keyboard and you're ready to go.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • Or Any tablet with a keyboard folio-case

      Lots of interesting keyboard cases/covers out there, although far more for iPads than for Android tablets. I am writing this from my Motorola lapdock for my Bionic phone - nice with keyboard, and 11.6" screen, but still limiting with the "monochronistic" (need to see if that is even a real word...) UI with each qpp taking entire screen (maybe Samsung's multi-windows for the Note series tablets is a solution?).
      aroc
      • someone else is doing this

        And they call it MS Windows 8. Ok, they are not doing great, but Android might be more what people expect when they buy a Android computer. And yes, there are some ok word- and calculation programs for Android out there...
        Jxn
  • If there is Android, do you need Chrome OS?

    I like Chrome OS, but if the PC runs Android, and you open Chrome browser in Android and launch tabs, you basically have Chrome OS, or close enough. I know Google does not want merge Chrome OS and Android, but a Chrome browser on Android PCs, either laptop or desktop will appeal to the millions of people who currently use smartphones, but not computers. The selling point will be the physical keyboard and a comfortable sitting position with a high monitor. Less pain than with tablet computing.
    Jeffrey-the Barak
    • security

      While Chrome runs on many platforms, AFAIK on ChromeOS gives you a verified boot. Android would be a nice addition to a chrome book as long as it can be sandboxed. There are a few significant missing pieces in ChomeOS, a good Citric client being on; Android has one. Often I have to vnc into my phone or CRD into my PC to connect to a vendor's PC. This is subideal.
      Maitin Rhode
  • Android and chromeOS are very different

    Chromebooks are cloud web enable devices - they have a lot of advantages and in my opinion will be a big trend in the future - it can be 2, 5, 10 or even more years, but I'm convinced that it will happen.
    Android is much more like windows, even if many mobile apps are tied to a cloud.
    I see future in android laptops, I believe many of those dual OS machines will let users feel that using android in a traditional pc, is actually a good idea for them.
    Profit margins can be bigger, because production costs will be lower - android runs ok in sub $200 tablets, they just need a bigger display and a keyboard, weight is less of an issue.
    I don't see Google going against it, they have shown they don't care about the platform where they run their services, if they can control it the better, but sometimes they don't even care about controlling it.
    AleMartin
  • I thought I already had an Android laptop?

    Bluetooth keyboard and Bluetooth mouse and a tablet stand for my Nexus 7. Close enough for me. For what it is worth, I have under $60 invested in those accessories by watching for clearance deals.
    Jim Johnson