Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Should Linux and Android Fuse?

It's hard not to be ambivalent about Android if you're a fan of Linux. Android is free and open source (mostly, I think) and it's got a lot of momentum building behind it. Cool, right? On the other hand, it's not really a Linux distro in any traditional sense even though it uses a Linux kernel. It would be one thing if it were purely a smartphone OS, but it's increasingly looking like it will be a netbook and maybe, therefore, even a full desktop OS. A lot of people will probably find that a netbook and a smartphone are really all they need anyway, along with their TV and maybe a docking station at home with a large LCD. That's a very plausible scenario to me when people get used to netbooks and the things inevitably become more powerful. And having the same OS on all these devices may be a really slick thing. In this light, Android may prove to be an irresistable force.

Now, I don't believe that Windows and Mac and Linux will be replaced by Android any time soon. But a shakeup is in the air. For Linux distros and fans, this is a bit of an awkward situation. For once, a FOSS OS has a real shot at being a heavyweight market player - but it ain't Linux as we know it! Hurray Arghh!

The impact of Android is really starting to get the attention of the rest of the Linux world. For instance, today Moblin and Ubuntu announced that they were going to initiate new cooperation - after Moblin a few months ago decided to change from an Ubuntu underpinning to Fedora. Why this about face? I can only think that a big part of this is some strong competition from Android. Now, this is a good thing for Ubuntu, since Moblin is largely an Intel project and Ubuntu needs more and bigger partners like that if it's going to get anywhere. And sure, the strong showing of Windows on netbooks is a factor as well, and a big one.

Another telling indication is the announcement by Canonical this week of an Android environment on Ubuntu that will allow Android apps to run. Hmm. Is this the first stirring of an attempt to integrate Android and Ubuntu?

The fact is, the OS situation is too fragmented and it's increasingly looking like Linux is going to be left behind without a more united front and a lot more consolidation. There is a resurgence of noise in Linux circles about moving toward a 'standard' Linux distro in order to have less confusion and more compatibility. In the past this has always gone nowhere because of infighting and the very obvious lack of any one strong player on the distro scene to amalgamate power, to either unite warring factions or just plain take over. Well people, that player may have just joined the table and it's name is Google.

The more I think about it, the more I think it's kind of inevitable. I think the best thing that can happen at this point is that Linux learns to love Android and joins up with it. I don't know that that would be easy or even possible, or what it would look like. I suppose it could basically just a standard Ubuntu with a Gnome interface that also has an Android mode, or that just runs any Android apps seamlessly and natively as well as all the Linux apps. As for the established Linux apps, if it were appropriate to run them on a phone or small MID, they would be ported to Android. This part would be quite a bit more tricky, but I do think it would clearly be in the interest of Android to be able to use the enormous library of apps now freely available in the Linux world. This could mean that Android would need to change and have some kind of Gnu/Linux mode that it could morph into, much as Ubuntu is getting an Android environment that could be added. I'm not saying this would be easy, but since they both run the Linux kernel, it might well be possible.

In other words, the OS would of course look like an Android interface/environment on phones and other really small devices with a touch interface; on MID tablets and small netbooks it might look like Android or it might well look more like Moblin or Ubuntu MID with Android widgets; and on larger displays/workstations it would look pretty much like Ubuntu/Gnome. And yeah, if your phone had enough hutzpah, it could run Apache and Blender and OpenOffice, and if you wanted to edit a photo in Gimp on your MID you could do that while an Android app overlays live video on top of Google Maps. When you get to the office or home, your phone could seamlessly transfer your 'presence' to your home workstation where all of your Android social networking apps would appear on your desktop while you edit video on your 30" monitor.

Interesting? I think so.

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