How Open Source Is Android, Really?

Sean Michael Kerner

Android is based on Linux, but some of it isn’t open source. Sean Michael Kerner thinks Google should reconsider that

Google’s Android mobile operating system has emerged to become a dominant force in the smartphone landscape. Sitting at the core of Android is Linux as well as a long list of open-source technologies. Many people mistakenly think that Android itself is all open source, but the harsh reality is that from a usable handset perspective, it’s not always open source and an incident last week proved that fact beyond any shadow of a doubt.

You see, there is Google Android, the project that Google builds and shares with its handset partners, then there is the Android Open Source Project (AOSP). The two are not exactly the same. One of them includes proprietary technologies that are not available as open source (guess which one?).

jean baptiste queru google androidWhat use is AOSP?

Jean-Baptiste Quéru, the maintainer of AOSP abruptly quit his post this week, throwing into question the viability of Android as an open-source effort.

“There’s no point being the maintainer of an operating system that can’t boot to the home screen on its flagship device for lack of GPU support,” Queru stated in a G+ post.

The challenge that Queru is referring to is the ability of AOSP to boot on the Nexus 4 and 7 devices. Apparently there are some proprietary bits that silicon vendor Qualcomm is not making available as open source, without which AOSP will not boot.

I don’t necessarily see this as a Google-only issue, but rather one that any and all Linux/open-source vendors and projects must face as they dip their toes into the murky patent-infested waters of mobile telephony (don’t forget, Microsoft has made more patent licensing deals with Android handset makers than I care to count).

Personally speaking, when it comes to the ability to boot a device, especially when we’re talking about something that is Linux-based, I believe that all that core boot functionally should reside in the kernel space (the core of the operating system). With Linux, the kernel is GPL (GNU Public License), which is a reciprocal license. That means that any code that is in the core kernel itself must also be GPL and that code must always be open and made available for others to enjoy and extend. The GPL is the magic that makes Linux work and is a key part of its success.

Android core code should be in the kernel

Yes, I know that Android has already enjoyed much success, but if all the core code required to make it boot (on any device) were open source, it would be even better. I’m not talking about special drivers or cameras or accelerometers here; I’m just talking about the ability of the device to boot.

I suspect the Mozilla folks are dealing with the same issue on the Firefox OS-based smartphones that are just now starting to appear. Mozilla is a company that has always been at the heart of the open-source movement, but proprietary drivers and components are often foundational elements in the mobile phone business, so it’s not an easy challenge to overcome.

The solution to this issue is for mobile hardware tech vendors to open up their intellectual property (not likely) or for a vendor to emerge that will build a “pure” open-source hardware platform from silicon on up.

Google has long held to its corporate mantra of “Do No Evil,” and leaving the ASOP community to twist in the wind isn’t a “nice” thing to do. Time will tell how this plays out. I’m hoping Google will play nice.

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Originally published on eWeek.