Recently, a popular website ran an editorial about how Android was turning into the new Linux, and just how awful a thing that was. The author was half right -- Android is turning out to be the new Linux. If he had stopped there, he and I would see eye-to-eye, and this rebuttal would have never happened. He also would have gotten far fewer pageviews. He goes on to discuss patents and other issues that don't really explain his position before he comes to the meat of his issue -- fragmentation. You know, that buzzword that's ever so popular in any hit-piece about Android. I'm here to tell you what I think about fragmentation, Linux, Android, and how it all fits together after the break.
What is Linux?
Regardless of popular thought, Linux is nothing more than a kernel. There is no operating system for computers, embedded devices, or otherwise, that "is Linux." Until you add a way for data to go in and out, it's nothing. What people call Linux actually is a collective group of different operating systems that use the Linux kernel. Most people are familiar with Ubuntu. It's very easy to use, more popular than you probably know, and it's a great choice for anyone who wants to run an alternative and free operating system. But it's not Linux. Neither are any of the other great operating systems that run on the Linux kernel -- Debian, Slackware, Mint, CentOS, Red Hat Enterprise, Meego, webOS, Android -- the list goes on and on. Linux "fragmentation" is because people try to lump thousands of different operating systems into one. We've come along way since Bell Lab's Unix OS, and it's forked a million different ways, but only one is MacOS. The same reasoning should be applied to Linux based operating systems.
What is Android?
Android is the same, yet different. Different in the respect that there actually is an operating system named Android, and the same because there are also operating systems named Sense, Touchwiz, Blur, and so on. These are no more Android than iOS is free BSD (BSD is another Unix-like operating system, with a more liberal license, that was used as the base for Apple's products). Like iOS, OEM versions of an Android based OS are closed, and we're dependent on the OEM to provide updates to the operating system, using new features from the latest version of Android.
"Linux" desktop operating systems are the same -- when new versions of the Linux kernel come out, the maintainers of the different flavors make the kernel available for consumers. The real difference is that the kernel, as well as the majority of software on the Linux based systems is open-source, and users can freely (and easily) build it themselves. I know this is not likely to be a popular idea for many of you, but there are only a few phones that run pure Android -- the rest run something else, that was based on Android. That doesn't mean they aren't as good -- on the contrary, they offer features and software that isn't available on regular old Android, and really do bring a lot of great things to the table. If you use a "Linux" based desktop, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you don't, you should try it -- you might just like it.
Why Android is the new Linux
Here's where you ask, "Now what the hell does this have to do with Android turning into the new Linux?" Because Android based operating systems offer the same thing that Linux based ones do -- choice.
Many folks use Ubuntu because they want to use Linux. Maybe they are a bit technical and need the freedom to do things the other closed OS choices don't offer, but don't really feel like doing everything "the hard way" like they would with other versions. Isn't it great that they have that choice?
Or maybe you want to have a computer that just works every time you sit down at it, and you want the OS to be easy to install and update -- cue Ubuntu again.
Or maybe you have to provide computers for students and don't have the money to buy a bunch of expensive Windows licenses. Where to turn? You guessed it -- Ubuntu.
It goes further, maybe you're a total nerd who grew up fooling with Unix and want to administer everything by hand and have complete control? Load Slackware on your computer, grab a million cups of coffee, and learn the "man" command. Need something that's going to offer well over 99 percent uptime? That's called Debian. Even spec-geeks have a Linux based OS that can be fine tuned to the exact hardware they are running. It's called Gentoo.
Compare this to Android. Do you want a robust operating system that does what you expect it to, every time you want to do it? HTC and Samsung have you covered. Motorola was working on taking this a step further, but it's possible recent events may have thrown a wrench in that plan. LG is on the right track; the Optimus UI has come along way.
What if you want to tinker and set everything just as you like it? Get a stock Android phone, or take it a step further and get a Nexus device and learn to build Android yourself. And if you love some specs, get one of the new powerhouses from any of the OEM's, some CyanogenMod, and hack the living daylights out of it until you either break it, or it can run Crysis. Finally, some folks need an inexpensive option on an affordable plan -- that's where Android is taking over from Nokia, in places where a smartphone is the only way to communicate with the "outside" world. We spend too much time worrying if our phone is going to get Gingerbread, when we should be more concerned if it's going to get Sense 3.1, or Touchwiz 4 -- those are operating systems in their own right, and updates usually offer better and more features than an Android release. (I wish the Android launcher allowed me to customize the launcher bar, or had shortcuts on the lock screen.)
So yes, Android is the new Linux (even if it is just another OS running on Linux). It offers a choice for everyone, and people who just don't understand try to knock it for this. I like having a choice, and I like knowing you have one as well.