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Why the time is right for the 'Droidbook'

Mark Hachman | June 11, 2013
With the confluence of touch, tablets, and Android-powered productivity apps, the time might be right for manufacturers to think about Android-powered notebooks.

On Android, all of these are available. But within Chrome, a quick glance at the apps available for download from the Chrome Chrome Web Store includes Angry Birds, SpringPad, and various plug-ins for Google services. While the number of apps available for Android varies, it's relatively immaterial for the purposes of the argument: We know that there are about 700,000 Android apps available. That's far, far, far more than for Chrome OS.

Now, ChromeOS does have another advantage: Native Client (NaCl), a means of running native C++ code in the browser. NaCl apps are closer to what we think of as a true app, but remain sandboxed inside the browser for additional security.  In 2011, Google added the indie game hit Bastion to ChromeOS by way of NaCl. The game runs smoothly on the older $249 Chromebook as well as the far more powerful Chromebook Pixel hardware.

But one game doesn't mean much compared to the thousands available for Android. More NaCl packaged apps are coming to Chrome OS, but Google hasn't said exactly when. When they do arrive, they'll certainly boost the Chromebook's fortunes. But even then, they'll still pale behind the number of apps available for Android.

For now, it's gotta be small
Analysts and even sources within Google's Chrome team reacted with something approaching horror when asked for comment about Android notebooks and desktops. Most feared that the limited number of tablet-formatted apps would look grotesque when blown up past tablet size.

"I don't think that something larger than 12 inches would make sense, as apps would have a hard time being rendered nicely, especially considering that we still have very few tablet-dedicated apps," said Carolina Milanesi, a consumer analyst for Gartner, in an email.

An Android-powered Chromebook doesn't make that much sense, given that Android is designed for touch; a hybrid makes more sense. "I am getting more and more concerned that vendors are doing what is technically possible, versus what provides the best experience—or God forbid what consumers actually want," Milanesi said.

But OEMs are beginning to experiment with everything from small form factor Windows tablets to products like the Asus Transformer Book Trio, whose keyboard and tablet each have their own independent storage and battery. When docked, it can run both Android and Windows 8. Undocked, it becomes an Android tablet.

Count Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights, among the early skeptics. "None of these devices make sense," Moorhead said. "Android hasn't evolved beyond 7-inch to 8-inch devices, and there are less than 5,000 applications that look good at that resolution. I think that consumers will be very disappointed with them and retailers will experience high return rates because of the dissatisfaction."


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