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Opinion: Android won't be stuck in handsets

Posted: 02 Mar 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Android? open source system? embedded system?

Don't' look now but signs point to Google's Android winding up in netbooks, digital picture frames and a host of embedded devices as a friendly, app-rich face for Linux.

In this recession-battered economy, designers will turn to open source code whenever they can. After all, Windows is often one of the most expensive components in a system, prompting some to dub it the Redmond tax.

But to date Linux has lacked a user-friendly interface and a high profile effort attracting mainstream application developers. Enter Android.

I found the Google-led open source environment easy to use in my test drive of the first handset to employ it. Multiple new Android handsets emerged at the recent Mobile World Congress, spurring the interest of application developers.

A huge battle for mindshare in cellphone software is now playing out between Apple, Google, Microsoft and Nokia. More quietly, it looks like there will soon be other fronts in this war.

Netbooks are one of the big new targets. Netbooks are all about shrinking the sizeand the priceof mainstream notebooks, now the biggest slice to the PC market.

At MWC, Freescale Semiconductor said it is now supporting Android as part of its efforts to get its ARM-based iMx chip designed into netbooks that could cost as little as $200. That's way south of today's $399+ entry-level prices, thanks in part to eliminating the Windows profit margin.

Interestingly, one AsusTek exec told me Microsoft refused to lower the price of Windows XP for its Eee PCthe poster child of netbooksuntil Asus started shipping Linux-based systems. At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Asus demoed a number of Windows mobile PCs using ARM chips and Linux for secondary services and said it is working on Android-based mobile systems.

"The first [ARM/Linux netbooks] were largely ODMs playing with the technology because they could, but in the next year we will see models delivering a much more useful consumer experience," said one exec, who asked not to be named. "I think they will be very compelling around next Christmas when we see $200 price points, but the margins are getting very tight," he added.

Android advantage
I have no doubt Taiwan's top notebook and smart phone makers including Acer and HTC are investigating the possibility of bringing Android into netbooks and other PC-ish designs. A recent Reuters report said Toshiba, Pegatron and Wistron are showing demos of ARM-powered netbooks,

My colleague Peter Clarke spoke out on Dell's use of ARM/Linux subsystems in its mobile PCs. I believe the ease-of-use and richness of applications for Android could fuel more aggressive work in this area.

Beyond the netbook craze, designers are eyeing Android for a wide range of mobile embedded systems. For example, my colleague Junko Yoshida reported Marvell is getting demand from OEMs to support Android on its ARM-based Sheeva processor aimed at networked picture frames and other embedded devices.

Moto, a San Francisco based design house, recently posted a video of Android running on an E-Ink display. The engineer in the demo said Android can be easily customized for use in medical, consumer and other devices.

Google says they are open to proliferating the platform.

"Android was designed from the beginning to scale downward to feature phones and upward to [mobile Internet devices] and netbook-style systems," said a Google spokeswoman. Because it is open source software, "anyone can take the Android platform and add code or download it to create a mobile device without restrictions," she added.

It's early days, but in a few years I believe we could see environments like Android making significant inroads in PC and embedded markets where Microsoft once thought Windows was a slam dunk.

In the midst of a recession of historic proportions, the price is right.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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