Why Dell’s rumoured Android netbook makes sense

Is Dell gearing up to release an Android netbook? Yes according to mobile software developer Bsquare which yesterday issued a press release announcing that Dell was “leveraging Bsquare’s Android competency to improve the Adobe Flash Lite experience on Dell’s Mini Inspiron 910” (the 910 being the official model number for the Mini 9).

The Inspiron Mini 9 currently comes with either Windows XP or in the US Ubuntu – neither of which need Flash Lite which is a lightweight version of Adobe’s Flash Player intended for devices with limited processing power such as smartphones. Smartphones that might run a similarly lightweight OS like Google Android.

While the press release was promptly pulled vanished from Bsquare’s Web site (after what we assume was at least one angry phone call emanating from Dell’s Austin HQ) as we reported earlier today the press release hammered home the connection between Flash Lite and Android. “Integrating Adobe Flash technology with the functionality of Google’s Android platform on the full range of Netbook devices will allow our OEM customers to meet the high expectations their customers have of this new industry segment”.

Is Dell gearing up to recast the Mini 9 as an all-new Android netbook?

So now let’s put the pieces together. Dell’s development of a smartphone has been the subject of many a rumour and of late that buzz has included Android. So is it much of a stretch to imagine Dell is looking into putting Android onto one of its popular netbooks – especially given that Asus Acer and HP are also said to be testing the open-source smartphone OS.

Dell is rarely one to boldly push into untried markets – it’s quick to follow the lead but never forges it. But the netbook market is far from untried. It’s been the sole bright spot in an otherwise dismal year for PC sales.

Netbooks currently hold seven of the top ten ‘best seller’ slots in Amazon.com’s entire Computers & PC Hardware range – a broad category that encompasses desktops laptops and monitors.

Industry analyst firm IDC predicts that 2009 will see netbook shipments surge by 82 per cent compared to just one per cent growth for conventional notebooks (the growth in Australia alone is tipped as 40.8 per cent and more than one out of every ten laptops sold in 2009 will be a netbook). Research firm DisplaySearch is less bullish but still pegs netbook sales will soar by 65 per cent in the coming year compared to a three per cent bump for notebooks.

So it’s not as if Dell is taking a blind punt on netbooks. In fact the company could be smart for moving so quickly to take the lead in the Android netbook market. For Dell it’s a little less about Android than the fact that the free open-source OS will ensure a continued low price for its entry-level netbook.

Add to this that the Dell netbook roadmap allegedly leaked to German Web site netbooknews.de last month and reproduced below.

We’ve already detailed what this means for the two 10 inch netbooks – the just-arrived ‘Tiger’ Mini 10 and the forthcoming ‘Bear’ Mini 10v value model – and the 11 inch ‘Argos’ Mini 11 a new entrant which we believe will be built on Intel’s CULV ‘Ultra’ platform and be more of a true notebook albeit a very thin and light one rather than a netbook per se.

What’s worth noticing on this roadmap is that while the timelines for Bear Tiger and Argos all extend through to January 2010 which is where the chart ends (and before we get there both of the Mini 10s receive an upgrade to Intel’s second-gen Atom ‘Pinetrail’ platform).

But the existing Mini 9 and Mini 12 both stop well short of that. The Mini 9 (which as you can see was codenamed for diminutive female Chinese table tennis player Qiao Hong) and the Mini 12 (named for 2.3 metre Shanghai-born NBA All-Star basketball player Yao Ming) both appear to hit their use-by date at the end of May and June respectively.

This is all based on the roadmap and indeed the rest of the leaked Dell slideshow deck being legit. But it looks legit. So let’s go along with it. Let’s also allow that there’s a bit of wiggle room in these end-of-line dates or that they might be when Dell starts to close out stock rather than having the Mini 9 and Mini 12 suddenly disappear overnight.

The Mini 10 hits the sweet spot and looks set to be Dell’s mid-range and thus most popular netbook

The shape of things might be that Dell will revamp the Mini 9 as an Android netbook thus taking it back to the truest concept of a netbook – a device with the primary function of Internet usage – while retaining the Mini 9 as the obvious entry-level device in both price (including the lack of Microsoft’s US$25 XP OEM licence fee) and functionality.

The ‘Bear’ Mini 10v provides a more affordable version of the Mini 10

The pair of Mini 10’s hit what has become the netbook ‘sweet spot’ with two price points. It’s always nice to have an upsell and this also positions the Mini 10v ‘Bear’ as the desirable ‘next model up’ for the Mini 9 by delivering a compelling mix of larger keyboard and screen much bigger hard drive and the familiar face of Windows. It also delivers Dell a slightly fatter margin into the deal.

Will the Atom-powered Mini 12 netbook make way for an Ultra-class ‘thin and light’ Mini 11 notebook?

At the top of the food chain sits the Mini 11 aka Argos which replaces the current Mini 12 netbook to provide a more marked alternative to the Mini 10. A faster and more capable ‘Ultra’ processor instead of the Atom more RAM and a larger hard drive and perhaps a higher-level edition of Windows 7 into the bargain. And again more margin for Dell.

This three way split is all about differentiation within a product line. It’s a philosophy that’s worked for Apple in notebooks and iPods alike. Give the customer some choice but make it clearly delineated. Then present obvious benefits and thus compelling reasons to pony up more cash – but not too much more on top of what they were previously prepared to spend.

The Android Mini 9 gives you Dell’s most affordable go-anywhere portability for the truly Net-centric with added points for OS geek appeal. The Mini 10’s give you that ‘sweet spot’ and the familiar face of Windows. The Mini 11 gives you the thin and light attributes of a netbook with the increased power and fuller functionality of a notebook yet without undercutting Dell’s premium ultra-portables.

If this is how things actually play out Dell could be set to make a meal of the netbook market in 2009.