HP and Asustek testing Google’s Android OS for sub-$500 netbooks

San Francisco (CA) – It’s being reported that both Hewlett-Packard and Asustek are currently testing Google’s Android operating system for use not in smartphones, but in sub-$500 netbooks and notebooks. The operating system would be installed in place of Windows.

Recent reports from both The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg suggest netbook (and even low-end notebook) makers are looking at alternatives to Microsoft’s expensive, proprietary Windows-based operating systems in favor of a smaller, lighter footprint OS, one which may even be compatible with the OS running on their phone.

Google’s Android operating system is based on a version of Linux, and as a result is open source. While there are countless developers working on the various distributions of Linux, Android is not the first version to make it into netbooks. Ubuntu Linux (a Debian distribution) has been used in some x86-based netbooks as well as ARM-based netbooks using the Cortex-A8 and Cortex-A9 processors, as have several other distributions for both CPUs.

The industry has seen several warnings of an expected upcoming competition, raised by analysts and journalists alike, that there is this future battle between ARM and x86 for the low-end market. Many believe ARM is more ideally suited to lower-powered apps due to its highly optimized and flexible instruction set, which allows things the x86 ISA does not, such as predication on nearly every instruction and a fixed length opcode (ARM uses 32-bit on most instructions with a Thumb subset which includes both 16-bit and 32-bit instructions; x86 uses 8-bit to 120-bit, though typically 56-bits or less per instruction even in 64-bit mode).

The nature of the x86 ISA mandates that code jumps around a lot, resulting in less performance when the branch prediction algorithms “guess wrong” on the expected destination instruction. Using predication, or conditional operations, in ARM allows its code execution to continue smoothly without much unanticipated jumping around, though with some instructions being discarded or ignored based on data conditions. Note: In my opinion this is one of the weakest facets of the x86 ISA. Even today, x86 has unused one-byte opcodes that could signal a predication state in the following byte. Why it has not been employed is something I’d be very interested to understand.

ARM CPUs are the most widely used CPUs in the world and are traditionally less expensive as well, though Intel and VIA have been looking to challenge the low-end netbook market with very inexpensive, high performance x86-based CPU architectures, including Atom and C7M/Nano, respectively.

If Google’s Android OS is to gain momentum in the non-smartphone products, it may not be long before it reaches entirely into the desktop markets, and possibly even servers (as it is Linux-based). And given the relative sizes of the two companies, Google at $109.74 billion and Microsoft at $163.32 billion, the reality is Google has enough muscle and stamina to become a major player in the operating system market.