Open Source

All your Android are belong to us

Jack Wallen takes a stand on whether Android is a true Linux distribution. Are Jack's arguments compelling enough to change your mind? Read on and find out.

Amazon is about to release its own tablet. This tablet, as you would expect, will run the Android operating system. This tablet, is expected to be the major competition for the iPad. Why? The Amazon tablet will most likely serve as the next-gen Kindle. Like the iPad, the Amazon tablet will do much more than be an ereader. And with the $250 (rumored) price-point, it looks like Amazon could do for the tablets what it did for ereaders when the Kindle first released.

The news of this new "iPad Killer" tablet, running the Android platform, naturally has the whole of the Linux community excited. Why? Because Linux will be in the hands of more and more users.

Or will it?

This has been one of those questions that has been bandied back and forth for quite some time now. Is Android Linux? We all know, very well, that Android was based on the Linux kernel. But many argue that there's just not enough of the Linux kernel within Android to call it Linux.

I wanted a more definitive answer — without having to comb through code. In my research, the two most telling bits of fact are:

  • The Android kernel is a fork of the Linux kernel.
  • Android does not contain the GNU tools or libraries.

Okay, so the Android platform uses a fork of the Linux kernel that does not contain the GNU tools. Instead, Android has a bunch of Google software (in place of GNU and other usual suspects found in Linux distributions). But most importantly, Android is a fork of Linux.

What this does is point back to the old argument: What is Linux? The fact is, Linux is nothing more than a kernel with which to run an environment upon. Without the overlaying layers, the Linux kernel is fairly useless (just like an application is useless without an OS to run on.)

  • Ubuntu is not Linux.
  • Fedora is not Linux.

They both use the Linux kernel. But they are also both counted as "Linux."

Android is in the same situation — the only difference between it and the above to "official" Linux distributions is that Android uses a modified (by Google) Linux kernel. Those modifications are done in order to make the hardware work. Simple. With that logic in place (and the fact that, yes, you can download the source for Android) I would have to draw the conclusion that:

Android should be considered a distribution of Linux (albeit a highly modified one).

And what this highly modified distribution of Linux does is bring Linux to the mobile world in ways the unmodified Linux distribution cannot (yet). But it's really only a matter of time before each and every distribution of Linux is running on that precious tablet hardware (I will be doing an article on running Ubuntu in a chrooted environment on a Thrive tablet soon).

I know there are many out there that would disagree with my conclusion. Why? Because without the GNU tools Linux is not Linux. Wrong. Without the GNU tools, Linux is not GNU/Linux. Remember, Linux is as open source as you can get. That means it can be...wait for it...modified. And that is exactly what Google has done with the Linux that lives underneath that wonderful Android UI — modified it.

Which side of the fence do you come down on? And why? If you are one of those that thinks Android is a whole other platform, tell us why.


Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website

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