We've seen several stories recently (including one by our own Maggie Reardon) about how HP and other companies are considering using an operating system based on Google's Android platform for Netbook laptops, replacing the ubiquitous Windows XP. Examining the short history of the unexpectedly popular Netbook market, it seems unlikely that Android will be able to gain a foothold.
The very first Netbooks ran Linux operating systems, usually with a custom front-end to give users easy access to a Web browser and other frequently used apps. But as well-intentioned as that plan was, it wasn't until PC makers added the already archaic Windows XP operating system that the Netbook craze took off.
It wasn't that XP was the perfect solution for small screens and low-power CPUs -- it's that consumers searching for a simple, low-cost second or travel laptop value ease of use over almost anything else. XP benefits from looking and feeling familiar to most users.
While a non-Windows OS can easily front-load the most commonly used software (FireFox, Open Office, etc.), adding new programs can be a hassle for the uninitiated, and users can be disappointed to find their existing library of Windows software won't work (to say nothing of trying to find and install an alternative). And if something like your Wi-Fi connection, for example, isn't working for some reason, even a relative luddite can muddle through several obvious possible fixes in XP -- try getting a PC novice to figure that out under an unfamiliar operating system.
To its credit, the phone version of Android (as used on the T-Mobile G1) is very user-friendly, and an Android computer OS would likely attempt to tackle many of these issues with a features such as a built-in app store.
Market research firm NPD Group Inc. estimates that Windows comes on more than 90% of new Netbooks. Microsoft said consumers returned Linux Netbooks after discovering the PCs didn't easily work with popular programs and peripherals like printers--a challenge that could also be faced by Android, which is based on the core of Linux.
In our initial tests, Windows 7 also shows great promise for Netbooks, and seems like a much more likely candidate for the future of Netbooks than anything else. Can a non-Windows OS win over Netbook users? Weigh in with your comments below.