HP may offer Android in netbooks over Windows

Some analysts wonder if Google's phone OS is up to the job, however

Hewlett-Packard confirmed Tuesday that it is testing Google's Android operating system as a possible alternative to Windows in some of its netbook computers.

Analysts said the move would allow HP to develop a low-cost netbook optimized for wireless networks that provides access to Web-based services such as Google Docs, but others questioned whether the Google software is ready for such a task.

"Right now Android is barely finished for phones," said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Current Analysis. While it works well enough for T-Mobile's G1 smartphone, the software was released only last year and "the UI still feels half-finished," he said.

HP stressed that it was still only testing Android, an OS based on the open-source Linux kernel. It has assigned engineers to the task but has made no decision yet whether to offer Android in products, said HP spokeswoman Marlene Somsak. The news was first reported earlier Tuesday by the Wall Street Journal.

"We want to assess the capability it will have for the computing and communications industry," Somsak said. "We remain open to considering various OS options."

Netbooks are small, low-cost computers that are designed primarily for browsing the Web and doing basic computing tasks. The category has proved popular -- about 10 million netbooks shipped in 2008 and the number is expected to double this year, according to IDC.

Android was designed for mobile phones but has been seen by some others besides HP as a potential OS for netbooks. Some enthusiasts have been testing Android on netbooks such as Asustek's Eee PC, and chip makers such as Qualcomm and Freescale hope to bring Android to netbooks running on their Arm-based chips.

HP may have in mind a netbook optimized for use with Web-based services such as the Google Docs hosted applications suite and Google's online storage service, said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates.

The fact that notebooks are designed to provide quick access to online services, often over wireless networks, makes them in some ways like oversized smartphones.

There are also no license fees for Android, which could allow hardware makers to offer lower-priced computers than those running Windows. However, consumers have been willing to pay extra in the past for netbooks running Windows, analysts noted.

HP already offers some PCs with a choice of Linux or Windows, and introducing another OS choice would come with some risk, said David Daoud, a research manager at IDC. Some end-users don't like Linux because they are unfamiliar with it, he said.

"We've seen a number of netbooks returned as a result of the Linux OS. Consumers are used to the Microsoft Windows world," Daoud said. Linux adoption remains weak on client computers, especially in mature markets like the U.S. and Western Europe, he noted.

Still, there may be an upside for Android if HP were to make it work in netbooks. HP's heft as the world's largest PC maker would widen Android's use, Daoud said. It could see success in emerging markets like India and China, where Linux adoption is growing.

But HP would need to deliver a consumer-friendly product that makes Linux easier to use in PCs, Daoud said.

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