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The Androidisation of GNU/Linux

Posted in GNU/Linux, Google at 2:13 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Android screenshot

Summary: Assessment of what is happening to what we once called “Linux” and collectively advocated as a pathway to digital freedom

When GNU/Linux becomes just Linux, loses the Free software (proprietary and DRM promoted by stores with remotely-controlled kill switches instead), and even limits access to the source code or discourages development from outside Google, are we really winning? That depends. The FSF has a love-hate relationship with Google based on its recent statements. It’s a very important subject right now and Groklaw says: “Now it’s Microsoft and all its venal little helpers and proxies attacking Google and Android. Linux back in 2003 had nobody to stand up for it. But Google doesn’t need our help. I’m sure it wouldn’t mind, but they have plenty of money and they can hire whatever they need or just buy it. I was willing to accept the threats and the danger and the smear campaigns I’ve had to experience when it was for the community. But I don’t feel the same, if I see I’m not needed, and I see it. Android has won. No matter what tricks Microsoft may pull going forward, the world knows now that when there was free choice in the marketplace, people chose Android, which runs on Linux, over Microsoft’s phone. Nothing they do can change that. All they can prove perhaps is that dirty tricks and misuse of the courts and regulatory bodies can distort the marketplace. But without the benefits of a monopoly, people don’t actually choose Microsoft phones, at least not in comparison to Android. All they can do about that now is try to force you to use their products. That’s in a way what a monopoly is.”

OHA was announced a few years ago. It was to be led by Google and it received a lot of press, which Steve Ballmer dismissed at the time, calling it just some words on paper. But Google’s Android has come a long way since then, even if not under the “OHA” banner. Android played a role in weakening some counterparts like LIMO and MeeGo, which were developed more closely with Linux.

“I was willing to accept the threats and the danger and the smear campaigns I’ve had to experience when it was for the community.”
      –Pamela Jones, Groklaw
Techrights is concerned that, despite its enthusiasm for Android, the platforms from Google redefine what we once knew as “Linux” or “Free (as in freedom) software”. We are not necessarily moving towards greater openness — let alone freedom — except in numbers. In other words, it could be argued more and more people use less restrictive software if Android becomes a “monopoly” as Gartner already labels it (this is a negative word which paints Google as an offender). But on the other hand, Google’s Android is not as open as a platform can be; far from it. And while nothing ever changed much in terms of antifeatures (Google insists on it when it rebuts the smears, and quite rightly so), Techrights believes that having more Linux contenders in the mobile space (e.g. multiplicity for diversity) would be beneficial. In a sense, Google has done to mobile Linux what Canonical has done to desktop Linux. Red Hat probably has not had quite the same effect on Linux servers; it’s open to debate really. Some make accusations out of that (e.g. Canonical is killing Mandriva) and some look at the positive sides, e.g. Ubuntu consolidates and offers GNU/Linux increased uniformity.

As the Linux brand is weakened along with other OS entities/brands (e.g. Microsoft and Ubuntu from Canonical), Android takes over and its sibling, Chrome OS, is hardly relevant at this stage, but that too is locked down.

Are we winning the “Linux battle”? And if so, which one? What is the achieved goal? The “year of Linux on the desktop”? The “year of Linux everywhere”? The “year of Linux on the most widely-used form factor”?

Moreover, what are our yardsticks for success? It is the extent of use (e.g. overall number of users)? Or the degree of freedom made available to a willing user of existing products? These are open questions and those who spent a considerable part of their lives advocating “Linux” ought to ponder the crossroad where we all stand together.

When it comes to market share, Microsoft is the #1 threat.

When it comes to freedom within consumer products, Apple is probably the #1 threat.

When it comes to fair play and consumer rights, both Microsoft and Apple are villains. For a start, both are suing Linux, using software patents. As we noted the other day (although very briefly), Apple gets away with what would otherwise be a good lesson for Apple regarding software patents. There is yet another site that’s dedicated to Apple patents and it says:

A video display with a ~1.5-to-1 aspect ratio was non-obvious in 1995???

As mentioned in the prior post on these cases, one of the two asserted patents is US 5,825,427, titled Image display system.

Generally, when I see news coverage of a patent suit, I also find some misplaced outrage in the article or its comments based on just the title or abstract of the asserted patent. When possible, I do my part to defend the patent system, pointing out that the actual claims being asserted are far narrower than the title, abstract, or news article imply, and that the patent system is, to a large extent, doing its job.

The Twitter user who highlighted the above in the context of the “swpat” hashtag added: “Apple accused of infringing incredibly broad patent but gets no press. What if it was Google.” If it was Google, the horde which includes Microsoft Florian would launch another dirty disinformation campaign. Groklaw knows a coordinated attack when it sees one, having witnessed this for the past 8 years. As a side note, we would like to send our gratitude to Pamela Jones who inspired those who created Techrights. Her work or at least her impact will carry on.

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  1. openuniverse said,

    April 11, 2011 at 5:12 am


    great article. i think this image really sums up the way things are going: http://i.imgur.com/iXyoA.png

    open source overshadowed free software. that’s not a virtue. it’s something bruce perens lamented one year after co-founding OSI when he left. open source has always been freedom-lite.

    when happens when we have open source lite, and finally even that is obscured?

    this isn’t just karma, it’s a problem that open source will ultimately have to face. you helped expand your image by saying “hey, people that don’t care about user freedom can jump on our bandwagon and support something kind of sort of like it.” well, now they’ve piggybacked on open source, and diluted their image in turn.

    lots of people were using gnu/linux (“linux,” free software) without knowing what free software was. lots of people will use ubuntu (open source) without knowing what open source is, and more people will use android without ever knowing about open source, let alone free software. the problem’s growing.

    Dr. Roy Schestowitz Reply:

    I’m seeing more people who say, “Android won because it’s good, not because it’s Open Source.” Trouble is, Google in turn de-emphasises the latter (see how they manage Android code). But all in all, Android domination is better than RIM/Apple/proprietary Symbian domination.

    twitter Reply:

    We need to be careful not to blame Google for what telcos have done. Does Google de-emphasise software freedom or do the carriers simply ignore it as they market phones? Google allowed carriers to make jails out of Android but the carriers probably would not have used Android if they could not. Because Android is not free software, it is good that Google does not pretend that it is.

    Google is guilty of cooperating with carriers but has done a good job of destroying free software myths by getting it into people’s hands. No one can say that “open source” is difficult to use, unfinished, buggy or anything but excellent. That’s a good first step.

    Google has a lot of good things to say about “open source” but does not seem to understand free software. This page in particular is alarming but may not represent the full or final company opinion. Specifically, they say:

    The companies that have invested in Android have done so on its merits, because we believe that an open platform is necessary. Android is intentionally and explicitly an open-source — as opposed to 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.

    This is why most Android phones are jails and that is sad. Their compatibility model and trademark control would work just as well for a free software Android as it does for one that strips users of their rights. The problem must be that Google’s customers insist on jailing users.

    What comes next that matters most. It is important to notice that the brand really being built is not Android, it’s Google. Android without Google would be about as loved as ATT. Google can pretend that it’s good corporate management that makes their software good or give credit to the community that provided them with Linux and other tools, such as the gnu tool chain that are indispensable to everything they do. Efforts to liberate spectrum, like TV white spaces, can be a real game changer. When people finally demand spectrum justice, Google can decide to ride the reputation they have built or work with the free software world. They might not have a choice because people obviously prefer devices that restrict them the least.

    The biggest barriers to software freedom are still spectrum allocation, non free monopoly networks and other government interference like software patents. Without these, the established software and telco monopolies would quickly collapse and people could follow the path of least restriction. Developers, those who know best, still overwhelmingly use the GNU/GPL and many argue that it provides business stability as well as user freedom. It is only a mater of time before the rest of the world reaches the same conclusions about copyleft.

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