ARM: Android needs more work before it will sing on netbooks

Echoing comments by other industry experts, an ARM Holdings plc executive said Thursday that "more work" is needed to make Google Inc.'s Android operating system work well on ARM-based netbooks.

"I do think that there is more work that can and will be done to bring the things we love about Android into form factors [such as netbooks]", Kerry McGuire, director of strategic alliances at ARM, told Computerworld. Android, she acknowledged, is still optimized for smartphones.

Netbooks running the Android platform on an ARM-based chip platform, recently dubbed smartbooks, are widely expected to pose a major challenge to netbooks running Windows on Intel Corp.'s Atom chips.

Linux-based smartbooks are expected to turn on instantly, and have longer battery life and better wireless connectivity than today's netbooks. ARM chief executive Warren East predicted at the Computex trade show earlier this week that ARM smartbooks would grab 20% of the market next year.

While Android has the biggest-name backer among Linux distributions potentially running on ARM, it still needs "a lot of work," Rishi Mathew, director of RealPlayer for Mobile Devices at Real Inc. said last week before Computex. "If you look at the [latest] Cupcake release of Android, it's very targeted at smartphones, not a netbook form factor."

Mathew cited the inability of Android to let users run multiple applications at a time, as well as the lack of drivers for plugged-in devices.

Philip Solis, an analyst with ABI Research Inc., said the Android user interface is based on a fixed number of pixels, which while perfect for a smartphone screen, remains awkward on larger ones.

While Acer Inc. announced plans at Computex to try to be the first out with an Android netbook in Q3, the first model will, surprisingly, be using an Atom processor.

Acer said it relied on a Taiwanese company, Insyde Software, to port the open-source Android over to Atom.

Could more netbook makers follow Acer and defect from ARM to Intel? "I absolutely don't think so," said McGuire. She said this does "not raise any concerns on the ARM side."

Indeed, the ARM platform has its eggs in more than just the Android basket, she said. Besides Ubuntu Linux, Microsoft's Windows Embedded CE already runs well on small devices similar to smartbooks such as media players or digital photo frames that in many cases already use an ARM chip.

"There's no reason you couldn't take CE into a netbook," she said. "It would not be a stretch."

Even Moblin, the version of Linux for Atom netbooks originally developed by Intel, could be easily ported to ARM - it was originally created for an ARM chip, McGuire said.

"If you look at the original Moblin source code, that was based on the Maemo operating system that runs on Nokia's ARM-based N810 tablet PC," McGuire said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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