HP’s latest all-in-one business computer uses Android for its operating system instead of Microsoft Windows. In another step away from the old Wintel approach that HP once championed, the new machine sports a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 4 processor instead of an Intel chip.
Acer, Asustek and Lenovo are also bringing desktop Android PCs and laptops to market.
There’s a clear need for HP to experiment with Windows alternatives. But is desktop Android the right choice for a business desktop?
Unhappy with Microsoft
Like many other PC makers, HP isn’t happy about Microsoft’s entry into the hardware market. The software giant’s Surface PC-style tablets are both a criticism of existing PC brands and a direct challenge to the companies that made Microsoft rich.
Another strike against Microsoft is customer resistance to Windows 8. It isn’t popular with individuals or with businesses. Retailers and PC makers report buyers prefer systems with an older version of Windows.
Apple isn’t willing to licence its OS X operating system. Straightforward desktop versions of Linux (Android is Linux-based) have failed to ignite sales, which leaves computer makers with little choice but to use a Google operating system.
Android, or Chrome?
Google offers two options: Android and Chrome. Chrome is effectively a browser that operates as a cloud-based OS. Android was built for mobile phones and can be found on tablets.
Is Android the right choice as a desktop OS?
I can’t answer that until I’ve tested an Android-based desktop. I spent time with Chrome and found it is a good choice for most, not all computing tasks.
HP says it chose desktop Android over Chrome because the phone OS is more flexible, cheaper and allows more customisation.
The Slate 21 sells for US$400 in the United States – expect to pay around $600 plus when it hits New Zealand. HP says if it opted for Chrome it wouldn’t have been able to keep the price as low.
HP also says Android functions better offline than Chrome. That last point seems odd as few desktops spend much time not connected to the internet these days.
Another point is that Google has tighter control over Chrome than Android. Users have no choice but to upgrade at Google’s whim. Companies running Chrome-based systems have fewer options to customise software to their needs.
Chrome has the advantage of Google’s web-based apps while the Slate 21 comes with the Kingsoft Office Suite which works with Word, Excel and Powerpoint documents. Of course there’s nothing to stop Slate 21 owners from pointing their browsers at Google Apps.
Is desktop Android viable?
On one level Android doesn’t look like a great desktop OS. It was built for phones and few, other than enthusiasts, regard it as the best phone OS. On tablets it isn’t as enjoyable or productive as iOS or Windows. And yet…
The truth is that all most modern computer users need is a decent browser. Almost all important work can take place online and in the cloud. Android comes with a choice of decent browsers including Chrome.
There are also some OK-ish apps already available, none of them cost much. Developers can quickly tweak their existing products for bigger screens. With a million or so apps to choose from, a Slate 21 user can be productive from day one.
Will Android fly on the desktop? To be honest I’m not sure. I can’t see any obvious reason why not. You certainly can’t argue with the price. The only glaring problem I can see is with people who need to run heavy-duty applications like Photoshop and other media creation tools.
Desktop Android is unlikely to hurt Apple in the near future – that company owns the high ground across desktops, tablets and smartphones. The real danger is to Microsoft.