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Android bakes bitter 20th birthday cake for Linux

The fork's tines are forking: This is a tree, not cutlery

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A time to panic

Samsung, maker of the Android-luvin' Galaxy Tab, is so worried that chairman Lee Kun-hee is reported to have told management to consider acquisitions to help enhance Samsung's "software prowess". It is software where the handset-makers have been differentiating themselves fastest and at the least cost.

Until now Samsung had been happily tweaking the Android code – code that has been closed off. Also, Samsung's primary competitors will get preferred status on Android, being involved in future development work and getting first dibs on new code. Late in the day Samsung's eyes have opened and it doesn't like what it sees. This is not the time to keep calm and carry on, it's time to get the chequebook out and begin buying.

Mobile and Android are causing problems for Linux itself. Success has made forking of the Linux kernel even more likely. Linux is licensed under the GPLv2, whose provisions include that state changes must be made available to all. GPLv2 says anyone breaching the restrictions irrevocably surrenders their rights under the licence.

This is an honesty-based system, though, and abuse can and has crept in. Money, like the margins, is tight in mobile. Most OEMs working with Android have apparently been breaking the rules by not returning their changes; the Free Software Foundation (FSF), author of the GPL, says there's been an uptick in GPL violation reports. Violations have been noted here.

But this pales when you consider the fact that Android is itself a fork. Android isn't part of the main kernel development tree, and the kernel has features built especially for cellphone use.

Taken with the OEM news, this means we're looking at forks of forks.

Rules? We've heard of them

Those running Linux are letting the forking continue because of what Android has done and is doing for Linux's market share on smartphones and tablets. A success is a success, and getting picky about the rules at this stage in the dash to the winning line would ruin everything for everybody.

On Google, the man who was hacking Linux for a hobby 20 years ago this week is reported to have said he's not worried by the Android fork and expects a reunion in the long run.

As for the OEMs, the FSF which has followed up on GPL violations with either a word in the offender's ear or by taking them to court, says its hands are tied this time.

"We generally can't pursue these violations directly, because only copyright holders can enforce free software licences in most countries, and few Android devices use FSF-copyrighted code," the FSF says here. The FSF claims there are too many copyright holders involved.

The FSF's answer is for more people to upgrade from GPLv2 to GPLv3, which has "improved termination provisions".

It is ironic that as Linux is enjoying its biggest success since the growth of the 1990s and 2000s, those driving it are risking the next 20 years. ®

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

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