Because I had such relative success with Android on a Windows Mobile device, I proceeded on to see what it would take to get it running on my Netbook, an Acer Aspire One. I found that there is a project underway to port Android to x86 platforms, so I started to investigate. This seemed semi-straightforward, even though it required me to custom build the distribution myself.
The x86 porting project allows you to build either a VirtualBox virtual machine or an installer for an ASUS Eee PC as the target. I found the main Android code repository, which had excellent instructions on how to set up your build environment and get all the various libraries installed (see Resources). If you're running Ubuntu, all that's needed is a simple apt-get statement, and all the build dependencies and libraries are installed in a snap. However, once you've done that, you shouldn't get the source from the main Android repository.
Although you can get it from the main repository and patch it yourself, there is a prepatched source tree available at the x86 porting site via SVN (see Resources). I spent a lot of time trying to patch the main source of Android for running on x86 only to have it fail near the end of the three-hour-long build cycle, or worse, fail to boot the OS image after it reported a clean build.
The prepatched code built correctly on the first try, and I was able to get the VirtualBox virtual machine going with little hassle (Figure 4). One thing I did discover is that the VirtualBox virtual machine failed to boot unless the VM was configured to have a serial port.
Once my Android VM was up and running, I started playing with it. Unlike the HTC Touch Pro port, this port had full networking. The first thing I did was fire up the browser (Figure 5) and was that ever surprising! It's possibly the fastest browser I've ever seen. Granted, it's optimized for a 500MHz ARM, and I was running it on a 2GHz dual-core CPU, but it was lightning fast. It's still a mobile browser, however, so it's not full-featured by any stretch of the word.
However, aside from surfing the Web, mobile style, and playing with the Terminal application, there wasn't much of interest with Android on a VM. The applications aren't compelling enough to run there. As I had it built on a VM, I tried to port that to my Aspire One to see any performance differences, but there were enough hardware incompatibilities that I reached the point of diminishing returns. I figured I'd learned enough from the virtual machine, and going through another round of extensive troubleshooting just wasn't worth the effort.
My exploration of Android was a fun and educational exercise, even if it was very frustrating at times. Android proves that Linux has come a long way from the days of the Sharp Zaurus on mobile devices, and on the T-Mobile G1, it's smooth, fun and easy to use. The G1 definitely is a contender for top smartphone, and when you're competing with the likes of the iPhone and BlackBerry, that's saying a lot.
Android as an alternative to Windows Mobile holds a lot of promise. Its open architecture means it can take advantage of the Open Source movement to roll in new features, and it can give many current Windows users their first taste of how sweet Linux and open source can be. Unfortunately, it's not ready for prime time now, but that'll change as developers figure out the hardware and get driver support for the various handsets—much like Linux's desktop support has grown during the past few years. This is a moving target, and a lot can change quickly. I plan to keep an eye on this space for more news on Android on formerly Windows Mobile handsets.
Android on a Netbook, however, gives me pause. After spending some time with the VirtualBox virtual machine, I can't really see how this is better than, say, Ubuntu Netbook Remix or even regular Ubuntu. Android is optimized for small touchscreens and tiny CPUs. Most Netbooks have a lot more CPU than is required to run Android, yet they don't have the touchscreen. Android is designed for use with a minimal or onscreen keyboard, and Netbooks have full, functioning keyboards. After fiddling with it, the use case for Android on a Netbook just doesn't seem very compelling. I think there's more value in using a Netbook as a tiny, full-featured laptop than using it as a large mobile Internet tablet. However, don't let my opinion sway you. Go test it for yourself! You'll learn a lot, and if you have the skills to improve the port, contribute some fixes. The developers probably would appreciate the help, and you'd be contributing to something that could touch a lot of people.
Bill Childers is the Virtual Editor for Linux Journal. No one really knows what that means.
August 27, 2015
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