On Android Being Linux

by Ostatic Staff - Aug. 19, 2013

Thom Holwerda on OSNews has a few choice words for those who would argue against Android being a Linux distribution. As much respect as I have for Thom and OSNews, I have to disagree with him on this point. Android may be built around a fork of the Linux kernel, but it is distributed in an ecosystem quite alien to your standard Linux distro.

Thom's point is that Linux, not specifically addressing GNU/Linux, is a kernel, the core of an operating system that allows other processes to access the hardware. Without the kernel, there is no computer, so building an operating system around a kernel makes sense. The term "GNU/Linux" addresses the combination of userland programs (like a shell and command line tools) and desktop environments with the Linux kernel, building what we call the Linux distros. Ubuntu, Fedora, Slackware, and every other Linux distro are combinations of desktop environments built on top of their own fork of the Linux kernel, this is what creates an operating system. It takes both to make a computer run.

However, building a system around Linux does not necessarily make it conform to the set of expectations that people have when they talk about being a Linux user. The user expects that they should be able to modify any part of the operating system, or replace the operating system completely if they so desire. While this is true for the "factory" images for Google's Nexus, it is much more difficult to find image downloads for manufacturer customized versions of Android.

Then there is the matter of Jean-Baptiste Quéru quitting his post as the maintainer of the Android Open Source Project over proprietary binaries being required for Android to boot on Google's flagship Nexus product. Android is developed behind closed doors, and once it is deemed ready the source is released. One has to wonder if it were not for the GPL and legal requirements if Google would bother releasing anything at all. From my point of view, the Android ecosystem is built around being open for hardware manufacturers and carriers, not for the end user of the device. Linux is built for the people.

Perhaps the most compelling argument against Android being another Linux distribution comes from Google themselves:

Android is intentionally and explicitly an open-source -- as opposed to a free software -- effort; a group of organizations with shared needs has pooled resources to collaborate on a single implementation of a shared product. The Android philosophy is pragmatic, first and foremost. The objective is a shared product that each contributor can tailor and customize.

And further...

We view and manage Android as a single, holistic software product, not a "distribution", specification, or collection of replaceable parts. Our intent is that device builders port Android to a device; they don't implement a specification or curate a distribution.

In the end, the argument about whether Android should be called "Linux" or not is a technical detail, and secondary to the core philosophical differences between a desktop Linux distro and what we know of as Android. A more important question is why we should trust an advertising company to build a device that knows about what we like, where we are, who we talk to, and what we might want to buy next.