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How Linuxy Is Android?

How Linuxy Is Android?

The world of Android is growing increasingly complicated. Soon Amazon will begin shipping its Fire, which includes a highly modified version of an old Android release. How free is the heart of Android? How much does its share with its free-spirited cousin Linux? Is it heading into a future where proprietary versions exist?

By Jack M. Germain
10/18/11 5:00 AM PT

The Kindle Fire, the Android-based tablet Amazon revealed in late September, could well be the next step in the ongoing metamorphosis of Google's Linux derivative into a proprietary operating system. Even if Amazon does not lock down its altered Android platform, it clearly has created a major fork in the Linux road.

Modifying Android is nothing new. HTC, Motorola and other phone makers have already established that practice. Android is an open source product within the Linux family. In some cases, it may not look much like Linux. But make no mistake about Android's lineage.

Android is just as Linuxy as any other Linux distro. But the way Amazon continues to grow the older Android version 2.1 now driving the Kindle Fire into something a lot less FOSS-like could drive a wedge between factions within both the Linux and Android developmental communities.

Whether or not continued fragmentation of Android hurts or helps the growth of the OS remains to be seen. Consumer and enterprise reliance on desktop computing is itself morphing. The race may be on among Linux/Android developers to provide a new OS path for this next phase of mobile e-commerce.

"The fact that we're talking about the fragmentation of Android means that we are recognizing its success, given how quickly and how far it has spread. The bottom line is that fragmentation is certainly a challenge. But with so many different case uses, the fragmentation is necessary. It's what the market kind of needs right now," Jay Lyman, senior analyst for enterprise software at The 451 Group, told LinuxInsider.

Two Peas in a Pod

Often the only difference among different versions of the Linux OS is the user experience (UX). That distinction cements the Android code as an offshoot of the Linux kernel.

"Android's developers focus on UX, although the Linux kernel and middleware are shared with other forms [of Linux]," Jari Ala-Ruona, CEO of Movial, told LinuxInsider. His company develops device user interfaces.

Linux and Unix are often used interchangeably because of their direct lineage, according to Carl D. Howe, Research Director at The Yankee Group. Unix is a rigidly licensed OS developed by Bell Labs.

"All Linux runs the same kernel. Different distro makers tweak the performance and the interface. But it is all Linux underneath. Android is becoming much the same," Howe told LinuxInsider.

A Growth Reality

Fragmentation of operating systems is an expected part of the developmental experience. Unix gave birth to Linux. Apple's OS spurted from Unix. IBM and Microsoft competed with branches of the Disc Operating System (DOS) and eventually opposing Windows platforms. Linux is seeing the same behavior with individual enterprise and consumer distributions. And then came Android.

Linux history has shown its strongest benefit often comes from how easily it integrates with all types of hardware, according to Ala-Ruona. Linux has been used by Red Hat, Oracle, Sun and IBM in the enterprise space and the mobile OS market as a result, he said.

"For the same reason nobody wants to develop a new operating system, but rather focus on the UX (user experience). The OS itself doesn't add as much value as the UX," Ala-Ruona said.

Multiple Android Paths

Android is already forking in several directions. For example, Google has been slow to release the newest Android code. That has forced a schism of sorts between makers of Android-based tablets and Android-powered smartphones. The result could be a proprietary, more updated, Android version locked down by Google separate from older public versions of Android.

Amazon's Kindle Fire interface bears little resemblance to Android's traditional look and feel. And yet another Android fork may soon appear.

"Intel and Samsung are developing an Android-like distro called 'Tizen' due for release next year. This is driven by developer's needs to have a cleaner licensing path," Howe said.

One of the reasons for all this fragmentation is the licensing. Product makers have to decide which ones requires royalties and which ones will avoid a potential infringement suit from Microsoft, he explained.

To deal with paying these fees to avoid what Howe called Microsoft's extortion, consumers could soon see a new fragmentation with a new version of Android not made by Google.

Linux Breeds Fragmentation

"This has been a fragmented market for as long as Unix has existed. The same fragmentation going on now with Android is the best thing that has happened [to Linux]. The debut of Amazon Fire tablet shows that you no longer distinguish a product by saying it runs Android. Today, everybody runs Android. The difference now is what's the secret sauce," Howe said.

One key difference in the developmental path that separates pure Linux from Android is the way apps open and run. For example, Linux on the desktop uses X-Windows or other common windows managers. Android uses the Java apps with Google widgets, explained Howe.

Howe likens what others call the fragmentation of Linux and Android to baking a cake. Unix (Linux) is the cake. The recipe for the cake batter is fairly constant.

"All the difference is done to the icing and the decorative embellishments. Not all icings work together," said Howe.

The Amazon Fork

Let's extend Howe's cake analogy one step further. Amazon is baking its Kindle Fire tablet with a left-over Android batter and serving it up with its own style of fork.

"Amazon is doing the same thing starting with Android that Apple did with Unix BSD as the core of the iOS. It appears Amazon's strategy from now on is to make it a full fork," Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst for the Enderle Group, told LinuxInsider.

In doing this, Amazon pulled initial code from Google. But from now on it will be a developmental platform for Amazon. That company will no longer look to Google for help and will use the apps already ported, he explained.

"Everything else you will have to get through the Amazon market," said Enderle.

Is Older Better?

By opting to cobble an older version of Android into the innovative Kindle Fire tablet, Amazon took something old and made it new again. Starting with version 2.1 gave them a fully tested and proven platform.

"It was very stable and thus was easier to adapt to their needs. Honeycomb was just too uncooked. Licensing may also have been a part of the decision," said Enderle.

The newer Honeycomb version of Android had too many problems in it that Amazon would have had to fix. It made better sense to do what they did, he noted Enderle.

A Big Concern

The fragmentation of Android already is an issue in terms of quality control and maintenance. The best products in Linux are the ones that people take and package and make their own, said Enderle

"This will be unique to Amazon. I would expect Amazon will protect this uniqueness in a number of ways. From the consumers' perspective, I don't think they really care about the different versions. From the perspective of those that follow Linux, it is another fragmentation that causes concerns," he said.

This fragmentation weakens the whole. Enderle sees the fracture as going against the foundation that created the concept behind Linux.

Maybe Not

"It will be a proprietary product that exists in what is supposed to be a non-proprietary environment," Enderle concluded.

But that might not be the full story. To truly fragment the OS, more competition may be needed. So far, that has not happened.

"If we were talking about a dozen different versions, then we would have a problem. The pain from fragmentation is felt by the developers and the suppliers and even some of the users. However, as we've seen with the Linux OS on the server, the existence of different versions serves to meet different use cases," Lyman concluded.


Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear.


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