Android bakes bitter 20th birthday cake for Linux
The fork's tines are forking: This is a tree, not cutlery
As Linux celebrates its 20th birthday, its biggest success – mobile – is turning into its worst headache.
Thanks to Google's Android, and in turn thanks to the success of Steve Jobs' iPhone and iPad, Linux has found a fresh lease of life.
Smartphones running the Android version of Linux account for 39 per cent of the market; Android has given existing phone-makers a fresh opportunity and propelled newcomers. iOS is second to Android on 29 per cent of the smartphone market, coming as it does from just a single OEM: Apple. iOS is number-one on tablets, however, with Android coming second.
The smartphone and tablet have arrived just as it seemed Linux's biggest disruptive days were behind it.
What started as an off-the-radar hobby for geeks had crossed into the business mainstream by the 2000s as companies recognised it as an alternative to the cost and lock-in of Windows on the server.
While Linux failed to unlock the desktop, still owned by Windows, it was application and server makers' adoption of it that turned Linux into the second most popular server operating system. Linux has borne various distros running on those servers – Red Hat, SuSE and Ubuntu being the most popular.
And yet, Linux is second, not first – albeit a healthy second. Despite the hard work by IBM, HP and Dell in making and selling servers, and the engineering and support work of Red Hat, Novell and Canonical, Linux still lags Windows.
Linux ascended despite the best efforts of Microsoft to discredit and sabotage it. Microsoft called Linux a "cancer" that threatened software makers' IP, it launched a "get the facts" campaign to undermine the commercial story for Linux, and tried to put people off by insinuating they risked prosecution by Microsoft as Linux contained Microsoft patents.
Microsoft's attacks blew themselves out, though, and cooler business heads are in charge as Microsoft's server business has worked to make Linux run better on Windows server through its hypervisor software. Linux on the Windows hypervisor means more Windows servers in the cloud, rather than Windows servers losing out to Linux servers in the cloud.
Microsoft hasn't stopped being any less threatening towards Linux, however, it has just changed tactics as the excitement shifts to mobile. As phone sales have exploded, Redmond has started hunting down Android device-makers, claiming the Linux they love violates its patents, and it is either prosecuting them or tying them up in deals to license its patent portfolio. The result is that Microsoft is profiting from Android, because under these deals Microsoft gets a percentage of the money from the sale of each Android phone.
Microsoft's attacks have come as Apple has turned aggressively litigious against Android and those companies making and selling phones and tablets running Linux.
Round up the cheerleaders
As the heat is turning up, the company responsible for Android – and credited for having propelled Linux into mobile – has taken two steps that have left techs speechless. The standing army of cheerleaders who've spent the last few years shouting about how it's game over for Apple, Microsoft, Nokia, RIM and anybody else not in love with Android are suddenly chilled by uncertainty.
First, Google caused consternation by ending the Android code free-for-all. It broke with its practice of open-sourcing the most recent version of Android – Honeycomb. Google claimed it took a "shortcut" to get Honeycomb to market and did not release the code because it was not suited for use on phones. The next version of Android, dubbed "Ice Cream Sandwich", will be open-sourced "by the end of the year", we are now told.
Next, Google unsettled Android OEM partners with its plan to spend $12.5bn buying Motorola's phone business – Motorola being the world's second-largest maker of Android handsets. Google's Android chief Andy Rubin claims it's business as usual and that Google's Android partners are on board with the deal, but the facts say otherwise.
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.
"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. ®