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Why Google Android won't take your desktop

Linux advocates may think that Google Android is another candidate to put a nail in Windows' coffin. It just isn't.

For years, my friend Stephen J Vaughan-Nichols has been trying to turn Linux into something it is not: a successful and popular desktop operating system. Everyone needs a reason to get up in the morning and I am glad he has found such a long lasting (and profitable) one.

He is a smart guy, but I am still waiting for the Linux that will change my life.

His latest foray into "Linux is the next big thing" is a discussion of Google's Android operating system running on future netbooks. Stephen then over-generalises to call Android "Google's... own contender for desktop operating system king." And in a paragraph that starts by talking about Windows 7, no less.

This is simply wrong.

Android is in no serious danger of becoming a desktop contender now or in the immediate future. Windows is and will remain King of the Desktop until something really dramatic happens. That's not Android.

Stephen talks about Android netbooks by year-end but the tone of the piece makes me wonder when he thinks the desktops will follow. It seems like expects them Q1 2010, but I may be reading too much into his posting.

The piece is, unintentionally I think, a bit of bait-and-switch, starting with desktops (where Android is very unlikely) and then using netbooks as the actual example. There is a big difference between netbooks and desktops, and Android is a good example to bounce them against.

It would not surprise me to see any number of non-Windows operating systems running on netbooks. The low price of the devices works against a Microsoft OS, for one thing, but it's also true that a more specialised operating system is probably a better choice regardless.

A netbook can very easily run a proprietary OS, so long as it is compatible with the outside world. A word processor or spreadsheet that is Microsoft-compatible works fine and meets the needs of most netbook users. It does not really matter what browser is running or what is going on under the covers. A Linux OS makes great sense for a netbook.

That isn't to say there aren't people who want to run Windows apps on a netbook. I am one of them, which dictates my netbook selection.

However, there are many more people, I suspect, who want an inexpensive device for work or play and do not really care what operating system or specific applications it runs. This is the concept of a netbook as the great-great-grandchild of the legendary Tandy 100.

Give most people a netbook that is compatible with the file formats they use, whether for work or entertainment apps, and they will be happy. Especially if the price is right.

What I would like to see is an emphasis on cloud synchronisation, allowing the netbook to share address book, calendar information, files, and other data though an online service like Apple's MobileMe. Keep my netbook in sync with my other computers and operating system becomes even less an issue.

It does not take a specific operating system to meet these requirements, so if Android wants to come out and play, that's great. I hope this happens, but I am not able to predict its imminence as Stephen does. I hope he is correct and we'll see Android netbooks by Christmas.

As for desktops, however, all of the reasons that Android could be a fine netbook OS, basically the lack of a requirement to run Windows applications or participate in Windows business networks, makes it an unlikely choice for a desktop OS.

That does not mean some Linux geek will not demonstrate such a machine, I'd expect that any day. Nevertheless, getting people to part with their money for an Android desktop, in large numbers, will prove daunting. The gap between netbook success and a desktop contender is just too large.

Lastly, I don't think Google wants the distraction of trying to turn Android into a desktop operating system where then is so much opportunity away from the desktop. Even if Android made sense as a desktop OS, I believe Google will make its investment elsewhere and pick the low hanging fruit of new devices and new form factors.

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