Glyn Moody, Linux Journal:
Android—and thus Linux—is now everywhere. We take it for granted that Android is used on more than two billion devices, which come in just about every form factor—smartphones, tablets, wearables, Internet of Things, in-car systems and so on. Now, in the Open Source world, we just assume that Android will always hold around 90% of the smartphone sector, whatever the brand name on the device, and that we will always live in an Android world.
Except—we won’t. Just as Windows took over from DOS, and Android took over from Windows, something will take over from Android. Some might say “yes, but not yet”. While Android goes from strength to strength, and Apple is content to make huge profits from its smaller, tightly controlled market, there’s no reason for Android to lose its dominance. After all, there are no obvious challengers and no obvious need for something new.
However, what if the key event in the decline and fall of Android has already taken place, but was something quite different from what we were expecting?
What’s striking is not so much the monetary aspect, impressive though that is, but the following: “our decision stops Google from controlling which search and browser apps manufacturers can pre-install on Android devices, or which Android operating system they can adopt.”
Whether or not you agree with the EU’s decision, and assuming that it isn’t overturned on appeal, that demand for Google to loosen its control over the Android ecosystem is significant, and it may be the beginning of the end of the Android era as we know it. Even if it isn’t, the EU fine is a timely reminder that the moment will, inevitably, come. Google clearly knows that, which is probably why it is developing Fuchsia.
Fuchsia will be open source, made up of a mix of BSD 3 clause, MIT and Apache 2.0 licensed code, but not based on Linux. Significantly, the Fuchsia “book” readme file begins: “Fuchsia is not Linux”. If Fuchsia turns into a major project that appears on smartphones and elsewhere, the implications for the Linux community are clearly huge. The Open Source world therefore needs to start thinking about what that will mean for the community—and to start planning for it.
The question is, what kind of insurance policy should the Open Source world be putting in place against the day when Google moves off Android?
Alongside all the previous (failed) attempts to come up with a viable free software smartphone operating system, and Purism’s promising Librem 5 system, there’s a new option that’s well worth a look. It comes from Gaël Duval, who probably is best known as the creator of the Mandrake GNU/Linux distribution in 1998. Based on Red Hat, Mandrake set great store by ease of use, and it was the first of a new generation of distros aimed at ordinary users, which have become commonplace today. His new project is the free software mobile operating system called eelo. Duval says he chose the name in part “because eels are small fish that can hide into the sea. That’s perfect for my quest of more privacy”.
For too long, the Open Source world has been complicit with Google in undermining the privacy and freedom of Android users. It’s understandable—Android has helped make Linux the most widely used operating system in the world, overthrowing Windows. Fighting against Google in the early days of smartphones, as it tried to establish Android as an alternative to completely proprietary offerings, would have been quixotic. But the time has come to assert free software’s underlying ethical foundation and to move on from an Android world to something better—in all senses. Whether that will be Duval’s eelo or something else is a matter for the Open Source community to debate. But it’s a debate that we need to have now, as a choice, before it becomes a necessity.
Often, I think about this, and it is encouraging that this topic is being broached. Furthermore, it will be important to make sure that open hardware that works well with GNU/Linux is available, regardless of the form factor.
People should be able to install open operating systems on the devices they purchase, and those devices should be free from proprietary firmware that may harm them. Running GNU/Linux or GNU/Linux applications in a virtual machine, a subsystem, or containers is no replacement for using GNU/Linux distributions on general purpose computers.
The hardware/firmware and host operating system you use matter and, for something as substantive as general purpose computing, people should not settle for anything less than the freedom that GNU/Linux systems can provide.