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Google in talks to re-admit Android to Linux kernel

Multi-year process?

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Linux Collaboration Summit Android's deviant Linux could be readmitted to the main kernel following talks at the Linux Collaboration Summit in San Francisco today and Friday.

Developers from Google's Android team are due to meet the Linux kernel devs in the hope of working out their differences and closing an awkward chapter in the history of Linux.

Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin, whose group hosts the annual summit, told The Reg: "I think they can hopefully work it out... the purpose of this event is to table those conversations."

Google open source programs manager Chris DiBona told us it would be a "multi-year" process. "I think it's going to take more than a couple of days to sort things out."

He noted, though, that reintegration would not be too hard because Google has deliberately stuck very close to the main Linux kernel with Android.

That suggests the issue is more political than technical, for two main reasons.

One is that Android has entered the rats' nest that is the mobile phone industry, and Google must now balance any desire to respect the wishes of the Linux community for compatibility with the more diverse, competing - and not always logical - interests of those now adopting Android and its own plans.

It's an industry where a maze of chip makers, handset manufacturers, and carriers have competing hardware, software and service demands, and retain an obsessive paranoia about keeping new launches secret from each other and the world. Keeping new features secret is harder when everybody shares the same code or kernel.

It's a maze Java's been bogged down in for years.

"Android is very complicated," DiBona said of the ecosystem earlier during the Summit. "I firmly believe over time a lot of the technology we've been working on [in Android] will make it into the mainstream kernel, we have to do better."

The other could be the personalities involved, who might not care for the politics of the phone industry compared to the purity of the kernel.

Appearing on a panel ahead of DiBona was Greg Kroah-Hartman, the Novell fellow and Linux developer who booted Android from the Linux kernel last year by deleting the Android drivers. Kroah-Hartman said that at the time nobody cared about the Android code and that, ultimately, Google had forked the kernel with a "sometimes bizarre" security model.

Judging from earlier comments Kroah-Hartman has made, he meant no one cared about making sure the code was merged with the main Linux tree. The world certainly cares about Android.

More than 30 phones ship on Android, with more planned, while the Linux is found on tablets and e-book readers such as Barnes & Noble's Nook.

Android had 7.1 per cent market share in the US smart-phone market January - up 4.3 per cent since October according to comScore. Since October, Android has grown faster than Apple's iPhone, up 0.3 per cent to - an admittedly already robust - 25.1 per cent, while Windows and Palm both shrunk.

If it was hoped Google would be brought to heel by being ejected from the Linux tree, it was a hope that was never realized. "Just because our code was booted out of the fork doesn't mean we aren't releasing code all the time - we are," DiBona had told summit attendees.

As far as DiBona is concerned, not all the features in Android will be relevant to mainstream or enterprise Linux kernel users because they are geared towards handsets - such as specific Qualcomm chip sets.

The dilemma of success

This has been an awkward chapter in the history of Linux. Summit speakers and Linux people around the event down played the problem, either calling it "a little fork" or saying "forks are good".

Google's operating system is helping propel Linux to new devices and even greater market share - advancing the common cause. It has done so, though, at an apparent price to unity of the kernel and in a way that's been played out in the public arena.

But attendees saw this as an issue and wanted clarification, with questions to DiBona during his session and speakers in an earlier panel about future of the kernel kept coming back to the Android fork.

James Bottomley, Linux SCSI subsystem maintainer and Novell distinguished engineer, said during the kernel panel forks are prevalent in embedded systems where companies use the fork once then "throw it away".

"Google is not the first to have done something like this by far, just the one that’s made the most publicity," Bottomley said.

"Hopefully the function of this collaboration summit is there is some collaboration over the next two days and we might actually solve it." ®

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