back to article Android bakes bitter 20th birthday cake for Linux

As Linux celebrates its 20th birthday, its biggest success – mobile – is turning into its worst headache. Thanks to Google's Android, and in turn thanks to the success of Steve Jobs' iPhone and iPad, Linux has found a fresh lease of life. Smartphones running the Android version of Linux account for 39 per cent of the market; …


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  1. SImon Hobson Bronze badge

    Once upon a time ...

    There was this "rebel" OS called <x>, initially gaining use amongst "geeks" and scoffed at by business. But it's use grew and it became more popular, and business started to adopt it. But the various businesses supporting and selling it all wanted to differentiate "their" version, and so the different versions diverged. This was bad for users as it meant they couldn't but "Program <y> for <x>" but had to hope that the vendor of <y> had done a version for the variety of <x> the customer ran.

    This forking and incompatibility held back adoption of <x>, and eventually it was sidelines as <z> came along and offered "one OS for everything". <z> became all embracing, crushing competition by lock-in and powerful marketing.

    First time around x=Unix and z=Microsoft. Now is history repeating with x=Linux and z=Apple ?

    1. Anonymous Coward


      Arrrggghhhh, WTF?

      If you're talking servers in the first story line (Unix vs. MS) then I can only assume you weren't an IT geek in the late 90s when Wintel servers really caught fire in the Enterprise world. Speaking at least for myself and the majority of the folks I worked with back then, yeah Wintel servers were neat and easy to manage, but in comparison to many of the systems we replaced with them they were toys (this was in the NT 3.51 and just getting into NT 4 era). We went from a smaller number of really large, powerful, stable and *expensive* UNIX servers to managing an order of magnitude more small, unstable (in comparison to what we were used to), weak (again, in comparison), and and cheap servers... which wound up increasing our workload significantly. We were definitely not cheering having to manage (pulling numbers out of my butt here but in some areas this was the case) 100 Wintel servers vs. 20 Unix boxes.

      Saying that it's now repeating itself for mobile is even more off base... Apple was ahead in market share before Android caught/surpassed it... and, as far as I know, Android is still growing faster than Android despite its problems. Could the current situation result in Apple taking back the lead... sure, but I don't think that's a given.

      What really drove Microsoft surpassing UNIX in the server space had nothing to do with fragmentation and compatibility but *EVERYTHING* to do with price. I would tend to say the same thing about why Android has overtaken Apple in the mobile space... and the same thinking applies to why Android *hasn't* overtaken Apple in the fondleslab category (most of the feature-comparable Android slabs are about the same price as Apple, so why wouldn't someone go with the market leader when the cost difference is negligible?).

      It's all fine and well to use terms like "rebel OS" to make a fun-to-read narrative, but making it all about fragmentation and apps, and completely neglecting the economics of the situation is really, really off-base. If you want a can't-miss formula for picking winners, I'd say with confidence that the cheapest solution that covers the market's must-haves (base functionality, apps, stability, UX, etc - and that is not something easy to define) will wind up with the majority market share every time.

      Of course, market share does not really a define success either... TBH I'm not really sure how much market share Apple really wants - if it's market share vs. profit margin I think they have their limits.

  2. Raumkraut

    Forking is both healthy and desirable.

    "Linux ... the second most popular server operating system."

    Measured how? By unit sales, I suspect, rather than the actual number of servers in active use.

    "GPLv2 says anyone breaching the restrictions irrevocably surrenders their rights under the licence. ... This is an honesty-based system, though, and abuse can and has crept in."

    If there are legal ramifications for breaching the license, which there are, and all it takes is one of many rights holders to take umbrage, then it's surely not an honesty-based system, is it?

    "GPLv3, which has "improved termination provisions"."

    Improved termination provisions for those who breach the license terms, I might add.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      ... scary in a hand grenade, but in an OS kernel, no, not so much. when it's used by apple fanboys to criticize OEM skins, not at all.

  3. Anonymous Coward


    Oh Gavin,

    Don't let Andrew Orlovski hear that you've used that term. He'll go spare :-)

  4. Tom Wood

    I could point out

    that Linux is just the kernel, not the whole OS, and that the Linux kernel has massively widespread use other than on servers, desktops and Android. Embedded Linux drives all sorts of stuff from your set top box to your broadband router to bits of hardware that you didn't even know existed.

    1. Disco-Legend-Zeke
      Thumb Up

      I Noticed...

      ...the GPL license in the back of the manuals for my (then) new HD-DVD player, and an off-the-air recorder.

      Why start from scratch when making boxen drivers?

  5. DrXym

    The best way to get Linux on the desktop

    Is to promote cross platform applications. Who cares what OS you're running when the apps you use are the same?

    Get users running Firefox and LibreOffice (for example), and retire thick client apps for time recording, expenses etc. for web apps that do the same.

    The next time an upgrade cycle occurs you can start rolling out Linux boxes and it really won't be a big deal for most users.

    1. eulampios

      and also....

      to bring GNU/Linux on the desktop enough is just.... to quit lobbying MS Windows everywhere. Kids go to school and do not learn how to use computers, they get addicted to Windows instead (paid by their parents via taxes). Students get to college, learn nothing about computers and pay for MS licenses. So, what is the Linux' "market share" again?

      Despite the fact that GNU/Linux desktop has matured so that it surpassed MS WIndows long time ago.... a circulus viciosus it really is.

      1. Mark 65

        Re:and also

        I don't agree with the kids addicted to Windows statement. I'd say it applied previously (Gen Y) but due to the advent of smartphones, ipads etc this generation of kids will be platform agnostic. My own 4 year old is happy with a linux laptop or using the imac, iphone, or windows machine - they interact with the applications not the OS (from their perspective). All they need to know is how to start the app - logging in is much of a muchness on any desktop OS. Even the two year old will have a go after watching their sibbling (all walled-garden naturally). Ipads/tablets/smartphones are also great learning tools for kids as touching the screen is intuitive. Windows is on its downward spiral in the home from this perspective.

    2. HMB

      Web Apps are for people who don't like Copy & Paste

      On a project I'm working on currently, we decided to test out Google Docs for a bug tracking spreadsheet (no time for a fancier solution and better than spreadsheet files in emails).

      So that worked great until users couldn't copy and paste spreadsheet sections for reporting. It's not an easily solved problem too because of the potential abuse a malicious website can make of copy and paste.

      1. DrXym

        Not every app needs copy and paste

        I specifically said timesheets & expenses. There are plenty of web based solutions for those sorts of things. And holiday / vacation planner. And document / cms systems. etc. etc.

        Basically there is no reason that an enterprise should require their employees to be running thick clients for this stuff. If by chance someone does need to work locally on data then I'm sure some solutions would offer import / export from a spreadsheet.

    3. westlake

      The best way to keep Linux off the desktop.

      "The best way to get Linux on the desktop is to promote cross platform applications. Who cares what OS you're running when the apps you use are the same?"

      Damn near every FOSS client application is ported to Windows or begins as a native Windows app.

      97% of the Moz Foundation's funding comes from the add-click. From its placement on the Windows home desktop.

      Moz, it would seem, has written off the enterprise market.

      Sun spent at first tens of millions - then hundreds of millions - of dollars trying to transform Star Office into a first-tier office suite.

      Oracle took one look at and what it saw was a bottomless pit.

      To Microsoft, MS Office is simply one component of an integrated office system [client-server-web-mobile] that scales to an enterprise of any size.

      That said, the "Ribbon" has been a spectacular commercial success on both the Mac and PC platforms ---

      and the geek in IT still can't fathom why.

      The productivity of the clerical worker. Staffing. Training. Retention. These are the things that matter to the office manager. To senior management.

      1. Tom 13

        You were doing okay until you got to

        "The ribbon" and invalidated any authenticity to which you might have laid claim.

      2. Graham Wilson
        Thumb Up

        @westlake -- Oh, dear, dear, dear, dear.... Truth hurts.

        [At the time I'm writing.] With the thumbs-down running two-to-one against you, your view says it all: you're correct, but we don't want to hear about it.

        You say:

        "To Microsoft, MS Office is simply one component of an integrated office system [client-server-web-mobile] that scales to an enterprise of any size."

        Correct. It's "simply one component" and that it "scales to an enterprise of any size" is the notion and it's key.

        Furthermore, it's key to understanding Microsoft. Early on, M$ studied IBM -- as Big Blue is par-excellent at dovetailing big clients into big enterprise solutions--hardware and/or software, M$ has mirrored for 'middleware'--the PC and its apps.

        "That said, the "Ribbon" has been a spectacular commercial success on both the Mac and PC platforms --- and the geek in IT still can't fathom why."

        I hate, loathe and detest the "Ribbon". ...But this geek knows why. Watching any novice or non-geek learning to adapt to it, I just have to bite my lip--we're a twain apart.

        [It's why I'd never enter politics--not in a democracy anyway.]

        "The productivity of the clerical worker. Staffing. Training. Retention. These are the things that matter to the office manager. To senior management."

        Absolutely key. Senior management couldn't give a damn about the niceties of one IT solution over another so long as costs are kept to a minimum, things sort of work and the staff don't assassinate the IT head or declare war on the IT dept. Whether we like it or not, for general PC use, a Microsoft solution is the best fit in such circumstances. It's the closest we get to peace.

        It irks me to say it and I wish there were a better solution. The facts speak for themselves, unfortunately.

        Out of touch naysayers, please put windows in yuh ivory towers. [duh, sorry.]

  6. Charlie Clark Silver badge

    Straw man article

    The whole point of open source software is allowing it to be forked. The FSF/GPL political shenanigans have long just been an annoyance.

    Linus is probably right not to be worried about the fork. Android is out exploring uses that have little relevance to server environments. He should think about moving to a BSD licence and a possible merge with the NetBSD code base for the kernel.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Down

      Moving to BSD license ?

      Who are you, Steve Ballmer ?! If Linux became what it is right now it is all because of the GPL. How many posters here beside you have mentioned the word BSD even though the *BSDs are on par with Linux in every possible way ? Go to your assigned corner, face to the wall!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Since most of Android's userland is BSD-licensed, I always argued that they should just go all of the way and replace the Linux kernel with the NetBSD one and kick those GPL hippies to the curb!

      1. eulampios

        apache license

        Aren't you confusing it with the Apache 2.0 license?

  7. Anonymous Coward
    IT Angle


    You put a link to Florian Mueller's "I didn't know about Android licence violations until recently" blog post (showing what kind of finger-on-the-pulse "expert" he is if he didn't know that was going on) but not one to the master list:

    How about reporting the facts instead of some pundit's self-promotional bulletins which happen to coincide with the daily Register shit-slinging by other pundits who were generally caught napping by recent goings-on and who now seem to think that their reputations can be saved by back-pedalling, airbrushing and claiming that they will one day be vindicated (at least according to their own articles)?


  8. Tim Parker

    "A time to panic"

    No - not really. Slow news day ?

    1. Tom 13

      Re: slow news day?

      answer: yep.

      Irene turned out to be such an East Coast flop*, even us wusses who can't take a 5.8 earthquake are shaking off the most recent "imminent apocalypse" without a lot of fanfare.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    time to reread "the cathedral and the bazaar"!

    It seems the author missed some keypoints in the open source philosophy. Forks are good in bazaar style (linux) development. As long as code is returned to the community. Linux has allways come stronger out of forks.

    Tough Google is lax in returning the code it has repeatedly said it will do so. Even if the twain will never meat, linux is not dependend on it. It will live or die by its own power to inovate. So lets wait and see and not create fud.

  10. Syren Baran
    Thumb Down

    Holy FAD, buttman!

    Or something close enough.

    Claiming a highly dubious theory about the termination clause to be fact.

    Calling a couple of unheard chinese manufacturers "most android vendors".


    Nice as GPL3 might be, its hardly the cure for a problem that doesnt even exist.

    1. DrXym

      It's also a non flyer

      Linus Torvalds and other major kernel developers rejected GPLv3 for two main reasons. a) they felt it limited freedom to impose moral clauses on their code (which is what they regard the DRM stuff as), b) the kernel was expressly licensed as GPLv2, not "GPLv2 or later" so it would be virtually impossible to upgrade anyway given the number of different authors.

      Even if it did upgrade (and it won't). it wouldn't a blind bit of difference to some Chinese no-names. If the terms of GPLv2 don't make them abide by their obligations then what chance has GPLv3 got?

  11. Fred Goldstein

    Android is a lot more than Linux

    The article makes it sound like Android is just a fork of Linux for phones. A better description woud be that Android is a smartphone operating system that uses Linux for some boring kernel functions. The real work is done in other parts, like Dalvik (their java-like language virtual machine).

    Linux provides a workable free kernel that a lot of programmers are used to. So it gets embedded in a lot of things. What people do in userland above it is none of the kernel's business, so there's no GPL violation when it's closed-source. Linux is most at home in the server world, where it's now the most popular flavor of unix, mainly on price and flexibility. Even Linus doesn't care about the mass-market desktop; unix-type OSs are lousy at that. (MacOS X has a sort of unix-like API layer atop its own Darwin microkernel and below its proprietary Mac-specific layers, but it's again a long way from a plain unix box. Even DEC's VMS could eventually run recompiled Posix applications.) Well, maybe they wouldn't be lousy at it if somebody cared, but it's hard to compete with Windows and MacOS.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I'll have one of whatever you've been drinking... Apple = one OS for everything? Where on earth did you dream that one up from?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      wait for it

      it's coming, baby, whether you like it or not. the phones might get smarter, but i think the "PCs" will just get dumber.

  13. wheelybird

    Second best priest?

    Linux the second most popular server OS? Not according to any of the stats I've seen in the past years.

    What a lazy, pointless article.

    1. Sam Adams the Dog


      That Wikipedia table is for computers visible from the internet. The next table down in the article is for servers sold through commercial channels. Windows is way ahead of Linux here. Dont' forget that this second category includes servers whose only function is to serve hoards of workers with Windows desktops... so they run Exchange, various Windows services and, these days, slews of VMs.

  14. Anonymous Coward

    I'm quite puzzled!

    [quote]Those running Linux are letting the forking continue because of what Android has done[/quote]. Forking FOSS is normal, legal, beneficial and largely accepted by anyone who has the slightest idea about software freedoms. I'm totally baffled that Mr. Clarke can't grasp the simple but fundamental concept that you can't use GPL software to restrict end-user freedoms, including forking.

    Oh, and by the way, speaking for myself I don't see why companies are going to rush buying and installing Windows on their hundreds of thousands of Linux servers just because the Linux kernel has been forked into Android so a little more detail for Mr. Clarke's theory on this subject would be appreciated. Maybe I am wrong, but does anybody else see Google or Oracle going back to Windows and at the mercy of Microsoft just because Google has forked the Linux kernel ? Let's not be silly!

    1. Goat Jam
      Paris Hilton

      Enlightenment Is Required

      "you can't use GPL software to restrict end-user freedoms, including forking."

      I understand this but it is also my understanding that you can't fork Linux and then just go and change the license to suit yourself.

      As Linux is licensed under GPL2 how is it that Google can go ahead and fork it and then close it off completely as they appear to be doing.

      I mean, we just had an article about GPL3 and apparently you couldn't fork Linux onto a GPL3 license because Linux stipulates GPL2 *only*

      If you can't make a relatively small license change from GPL2 to 3 then how can Google just close it off completely?

      I must be missing something.

    2. Graham Wilson

      @Anonymous Coward

      "Let's not be silly!"

      Some have.

      Recalling recent news--with its one-night-stand with Windows, Nokia's caught something undesirable: falling profits!

  15. ScissorHands


    A Linux mobile phone with a mostly upstream and definitely unforked Linux kernel, the Nokia N9, is being pronounced dead-on-arrival...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Black Helicopters

      Well, that's mostly because

      Nokia has publicly committed sepuku.*

      *Although there is vocal conspiracy contingent who claim they were pushed.

  16. Alan Denman

    If Android fails.........

    It's because the simpleton public don't understand so will simply do as they are told.

  17. Peter Mc Aulay

    What complete twaddle

    A mutant variety running on a type of mobile phone isn't going to determine Linux's success or failure in any other domains, certainly not as measured by some bean counter applying whatever metrics fit his predetermined conclusion, to whatever data he feels like pulling out of his ass.

    Had you compared Linux's market share to embedded systems instead of data centre servers you would have gotten a completetely different picture, and one that is just as relevant to Android (or indeed mainstream Linux) - i.e. not very.

    1. DrXym


      There are lots of Linux forks already for realtime functionality, additional security, extra file systems, distributions. They tend to loosely track the mainline often available as patchfiles but they're still forks. e.g. Red Hat's version of the kernel has piles of modifications which are not in the mainline.

  18. Dr Lucien Sanchez

    This is getting boring

    Is it just me or does the register now anti everything except Apple? How did an article about Linux being around for twenty years turn into a lazy anti android rant?

    1. Mad Hacker

      No, they are anti-Apple too

      What Reg are you reading? They are more anti-Apple then anything else, but yes, in general, they are anti-everything.

  19. Will Godfrey Silver badge

    Oh Hell! I missed it.

    The sky fell down, the earth turned backwards. How silly of me

  20. DN4

    Not again...

    "Linux is licensed under the GPLv2, whose provisions include that state changes must be made available to all."

    Please, please, show us unwashed masses the specific place in GPLv2 where this is required (as opposed to "_if_ you distribute it to someone you must give _him_ the full source and all the GPL-defined rights".)

    1. LaeMing

      Too true

      GPL is only concerned with making sure the /user/ of the software has access to the means to examine its workings. Everyone else is out-of-scope.

      All goes back to RMS' colleagues' printer driver, if self-styled journalists would bother to do some background.


    Forking? So what?

    Forking? So what?

    I now have a smart phone that doesn't encourage me to keep a copy of Windows. The fact that it has "deviated" from the kernel I run on that desktop machine doesn't really bother me. As others have said, it was put out there to be used and "forks" are just a part of the scenery.

    Devices that are more open than "that other Unix" are always welcome and generally useful.

    So is meaningful choice in the marketplace.

  22. eulampios

    Shame on Theregister!

    Instead of wasting time on Stevie Jobs' resignation, full of thoughts how it would affect the Earth's orbit, there should be a better article about 20'th birthday of a very important project. As an acknowledgement... At least for the theregister mag.

    Here's what I get from the header of this very website:

    "Apache/2.2.16 (Debian) mod_apreq2-20090110/2.8.0 mod_perl/2.0.4 Perl/v5.10.0"

  23. Eduard Coli

    Fork this

    As much as Linux has matured I think the real hold back was the DOJ failure to effectively punish a convicted monopoly.

    Despite all of the dirty tricks pulled by M$ over the years and the ones it continues to use everything they have done pushes more people onto Linux.

  24. Andrew Wigglesworth

    Ludicrous scare mongering.

    What an utterly bizarre article. Hopping around like some mad grasshopper between unrelated subjects and not understanding them.

    Linux isn't an operating system (it's an operating system kernel), so what the fate or direction of Linux on smartphone operating systems has to do directly and with the fate of the GNU/Linux operating system on servers and desktop computers is beyond me.

    Someone may have forked Linux?

    Well butter my backside and call me a scone ... what on earth are you on? Of course someone's forked Linux. Just about every GNU/Linux distribution patches and effectively forks Linux. The GNU/GPL licence allows people to do this, it's something they are supposed to be able to do. It's not a problem, it's the whole point!

    And btw., read the GNU GPL, it's easy, it's not very long and you may start to understand it's provisions for sharing code when you distribute software covered by the GNU GPL.

    I once thought that the Register might have a few reporters who had a clue.

  25. Giles Jones Gold badge

    Already forked

    Google is maintaining their own branch and you have to fork to create a branch?

    Forking Linux is a bad move since it could very well result in two groups of people duplicating work. It already happens with all the gazillions of desktop environments, sound drivers and so on.

  26. heyrick Silver badge

    Interesting viewpoint...

    ...but it misses one of the key strengths of the Linux model. Android isn't "Linux on mobiles", it is the popular one right now. Samsung's Bada can run on the Linux kernel. If I was way smarter, I could fork Linux and roll my own code for my smartphone. Closed ecosystems do not offer this.

    This isn't just important today, it'll be an issue in the future too. I'm playing with some eight bit kit. One needed a binary patch to handle dates after Y2K. Another, proving more complex will need sorting to get it to talk to a modern harddisc. If you have the code and a compiler for it, such things are possible. Otherwise... And who knows what may turn up in the next decade? Or crazy projects to port "your favourite OS" to some esoteric kit...?

  27. LaeMing


    now The Reg. is firmly and clearly degrading into RegWeek, any suggestions on where I might get my fix for quirky-but-relevant-and-informed tech news from?

  28. Will Godfrey Silver badge

    I'm disappointed

    Nobody said "Forkin' 'ell"

    Still, I have now.

  29. Microphage

    GPL violators irrevocably surrenders their rights?

    Just to address that one particualr piece of FUD. GPL violators lose the rights to use GPL software until they cease violating the conditions of the licence.

    "GPLv2 says anyone breaching the restrictions irrevocably surrenders their rights under the licence".

  30. Mark 65


    "What started as an off-the-radar hobby for geeks had crossed into the business mainstream by the 2000s as companies recognised it as an alternative to the cost and lock-in of Windows on the server."

    From my experience, Linux was used as an alternative to the cost and lock-in of Solaris boxes with the commodity nature of Lintel being highly appealing. It wasn't used (again, in my experience) to replace Windows boxes as the software couldn't be migrated whereas the Solaris boxes were generally found to be hosting things that could easily be ported (in the several companies I witnessed it happen).

  31. @kWIQEnergy
    Thumb Down

    Poor English betrays meaningless content

    You string the following words together...

    >"Microsoft hasn't stopped being any less threatening towards Linux, however,.."

    Substitute "hasn't stopped being" for "continues to be" and we read,

    " Microsoft continues to be any less threatening towards Linux, however,.."

    Surprisingly, and despite being utter nonsense, this is more lucid than arguments in the article !

    Yes there will be winners and losers in any competitive ecosystem, and yes GPL license provisions must be enforced, but where otherwise this article masquerades as learned - It is nothing more than a meaningless assembly of vague assertions constructed by someone manifestly unskilled in the art.

  32. Hollow


    Lately I keep reading Google and Android hate-articles on the reg and it's starting to fog me off! The Apple articles are still there, but with less hate and more "understanding", it's almost like el'reg has a new sponsor that we don't know about!

    I Re-iterate all the statements about forking being good, by design etc. and I also re-iterate the thoughts that Android won't make a blind bit of difference to Linux on the desktop, because it just isn't the same thing.

    For me Desktop Linux just isn't there yet, but it's coming. I use it as a desktop, I haven't used anything but Linux as a desktop for years, but for the mainstream public, it's not there yet. That being said, my 5 year old and my 16 year old both have Ubuntu Laptops and my Mechanic Lodger is, since moving in here, running a SUSE laptop :D So maybe it's getting somewhere!

  33. CyberCod


    I'm used to seeing trolls waving their appendages about in the comments section on articles of this site... I'm not used to them actually writing the articles.

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