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January 5, 2009
4 Min Read
What would Google do with its own PC operating system? We might find out soon, since it already seems to have one.Android, Google's open-source mobile operating system, is based on a Linux kernel. As a result, it isn't hard to imagine Android, given the right kind of driver support and application software, running a lot more than just smartphones.
But there's no need to imagine Android running on a netbook PC. It's already doing just that. And there is some intriguing evidence that Google may be doing more -- a lot more -- to prepare Android for life as a PC operating system.
Over the past several months, VentureBeat bloggers Matthaus Krzykowski and Daniel Hartmann have been exploring this very issue. Back in August, they noticed that Google was dropping a lot of hints -- intentional and otherwise -- about Android's potential as a "universal operating system."
More recently, after reading a Google developer's newsgroup post about porting Android to an Intel-based Asus EeePC, they decided to try it themselves: Besides writing as freelancers for VentureBeat, we also run a startup called Mobile-facts. It took us about four hours of work to compile Android for the netbook. Having done so, we (Daniel Hartmann, that is) got the netbook fully up and running on it, with nearly all of the necessary hardware youï¿¼d want (including graphics, sound and the wireless card for internet) running. As the pair point out, it isn't quite "Android For Dummies" time just yet: It took a lot of work to get the recompiled OS running properly on their EeePC with something close to adequate hardware support. In a related FAQ on the subject, they also point out that Android won't run very well on a standard laptop or desktop PC without quite a bit of additional development work.
Look at the big picture, however, and these caveats aren't important. The point is that Google can march Android into the red-hot netbook market pretty much whenever it wants. It would be shocking if Google passed up such an interesting opportunity.
That, at least, is how Krzykowski and Hartmann see it. Citing unnamed sources, they claim that an Android-powered netbook could be ready for mass production within "three to nine months." They see early 2010 as more realistic, however, given the time required for Google to build both the software infrastructure and a set of top-tier OEM partnerships.
They also raise two other points worth mentioning here. First, they note that the Android source code already includes exactly two product policies. One covers phones (Android's current target market); the other covers "mobile Internet devices," which is Intel-speak for a category of devices that includes netbooks.
Second, they refer to a fascinating Internetnews.com article about Google's apparent use of a mystery operating system at its corporate headquarters. According to net number-crunchers at Net Applications, about one-third of all traffic originating from Google was stripped of the user agent string that typically identifies a client system's OS to external Internet hosts: One-third, however, were unrecognized even though Net Applications' sensors can detect all major operating systems including most flavors of Unix and Linux. Even Microsoft's new Windows 7, which is deployed internally at Microsoft headquarters, would show up by its identifier string. But the Google operating systems were specifically blocked. "We have never seen an OS stripped off the user agent string before," Vizzaccaro told InternetNews.com. "I believe you have to arrange to have that happen, it's not something we've seen before with a proxy server. All I can tell you is there's a good percentage of the people at Google showing up [at Web pages] with their OS hidden." Is Google already sitting on a fully-hatched desktop version of Android? Or is it simply engaging in some very clever disinformation?
No one outside of Google, of course, can answer those questions. Before you dismiss the first possibility, however, remember the brilliant trick Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs had up his sleeve a few years ago.
When Jobs announced Apple's plan to move its hardware from IBM's PowerPC architecture to Intel processors, he already had an Intel-native version of OS X to show the world. And Jobs' presentation wasn't just smoke and mirrors; in fact, it took a matter of months to get an Intel-native version of OS X into production.
It's a feat that was possible only because Apple had been secretly compiling, testing, and running Intel-native builds of OS X from its very first release. And while Apple's reputation for keeping secrets is the stuff of which legends are made, one has to wonder: If Google's employees can't keep a secret this big, why can't anyone figure out what OS all of those computers are running?
Microsoft, for its part, says Android doesn't pose a real threat to Windows Mobile. Yet if the "mystery OS" running at Google HQ is what so many people seem to think it is, Microsoft may soon have much bigger problems to worry about, anyway.
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