Are Android and Linux the same thing?

Defining Linux and Android, beyond PR

I've knocked the sand out of my keyboard, applied aloe to my sunburned skin, and am trying to apply my refreshed and relaxed brain to the following conundrum:

Is Android Linux?

[Also see: Android violates Linux license, experts claim]

There are arguments for each side, naturally. The biggest for Android being Linux is, of course, the fact that the kernel for the Linux operating system and the Android operating system are very nearly one and the same. Not completely the same, mind you, but Android's kernel is directly derived from Linux.

Where things get ambiguous, though, is above the kernel layer. Take one look at the application and interfaces layers and you will see clear differences between the two operating systems. The application layer difference is key: even a Linux distribution like Fedora will have interface differences, depending on whether the user has applied KDE, GNOME, or Xfce. The application layer remains pretty much the same and, really doesn't change too much across other distros.

Like most classifications of this nature, the decision on where to define the differences between Linux and Android really makes argument go one way or the other. If you point to the kernel, then yes, Linux and Android are very much related to each other. If you look at the application layer, then things get much harder to pin down.

I could, of course, have left well enough alone and let myself buy into the notion that Android is Linux. Except that last week I read that Adobe is still justifying its recent decision to drop Adobe Air support for Linux in favor of Android as not dropping Linux at all... since Android is Linux, right?

Adobe's director of standards and open source Dave McAllister was very clear about specifying that Adobe would be dropping desktop Linux support for Adobe Air as of version 2.7 when he made the announcement last month. Desktop Linux failed to take off as Adobe anticipated, Android is exploding, Adobe wants to put its resources where it matters. I get that. I think it's a bit short-sighted, but I get it.

But in a statement to LinuxInsider, McAllister said something really interesting:

"Adobe isn't moving away from the Linux community. Rather, the company is refocusing its efforts into the emerging Linux-based space found in mobile products. Our customers and partners are likewise focused on this new market powered by Linux-based products, such as Android."

So there's evidence here that Adobe believes that Android part of Linux enough that the shift from desktop to mobile is not really leaving Linux at all. Or, at least, that's the message Adobe is using for damage control.

Except I don't buy that, for two reasons.

On the technical side, Air lives in application space, where Android and Linux differ completely. If Air was indeed staying in Linux, then we could see Air improvements in Android eventually find their way upstream to Linux. Except that won't happen because the one shared aspect of the two operating systems--the kernel--isn't where Air lives.

But really, it was that invocation of Linux community that really bugged me. While there are shared members between the Linux and Android communities, there is a clear sense that these are indeed two separate communities. Android developers and contributors, the last time I checked, don't typically consider themselves a subset of the Linux community. They are more likely, I have found, to consider themselves a part of a broader mobile community or even Google's community, before they apply the Tux label.

The question of whether Android is still Linux remains unanswered, and I welcome everyone's input. But Adobe's rationale that it's all Linux to them seems a bit thin on the ground as they seek to justify their discontinuation of support for the Linux desktop. The straightforward resources-to-mobile argument was at least intellectually honest.

This story, "Are Android and Linux the same thing?" was originally published by ITworld.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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