Passing on the Linux dream

Has the dream of desktop Linux been taken up by Android?

According to an article on Linux Journal, the Linux desktop has arrived.

Unfortunately, no one seems to have a clear idea of what the Linux desktop is supposed to be. Never was that more evident in this statement made by Google's Open Source Programs Manager Chris DiBona in an interview with der Standard this weekend:

"The thing about Android is, it's sometimes hard to understand when they do a delay, but at the same time Android is the dream come true. It's your Linux desktop, it's the ultimate success story of Linux that I've been working on personally since 1995."

The question, then, of whether Android is Linux seems to be settled in the mind of Google. Android is most definitely Linux. But there's more to it than that: Google believes that Android is the natural successor of Linux, succeeding in areas that the parent operating system could not.

They may have a point.

Looking at the relationship between Android and Linux, I cannot help but be reminded at the relationship between Unix and Linux back when Linux was fresh and young on the operating system scene. Talking with some Unix sysadmins back in the day, it wasn't uncommon to hear resentful dismay at the success that Linux was enjoying around the turn of the century, when LinuxWorld was booming, IBM was sponsoring, and the defeat of Windows seemed to be an attainable goal.

It wasn't all resentment--the spectrum ranged from enthusiastic to grudging support as well. Whatever their feelings, Unix developers and administrators watched their own prominence in the enterprise fade in the face of the rise of Linux.

And now we see the same thing happening with Android, as Android starts to succeed in an area that Linux on the desktop never could: touching consumer users.

DiBona's pride in his statement is very evident, and he can hardly be blamed. Android may become the dominant mobile platform, a platform that is rising to become the prominent platform of the next decade or so.

I have to admit, my initial reaction to DiBona's statement in this interview was probably very similar to what a Unix advocate would have felt if something similar had been said about Linux being the ultimate dream of Unix, back in the day. It was irksome, I thought, and a tad presumptuous. Who is Google to say that they have fulfilled the dream of desktop Linux?

But after some calming breaths, it makes sense. Google has never said Android is Linux; they've always maintained that Android is not Linux, even though the two operating systems share the Linux kernel. (This early Android slide Ryan Paul sent me last week clarifies Google's position.)

Android could be the fulfillment of the dream for desktop Linux, because even though it is different from Linux, it is not apart. Android is the child--initially precocious and now maturing rapidly--who is doing better than the parent.

The success of the child does not automatically replace the works of the parent, either. Linux will no more be completely replaced by Android, any more than Unix was completely replaced by Linux. And there is a key difference: while Linux had roots in Unix, they were never really connected. Thanks to free software licenses, Linux and Android are still technically connected, exchanging improvements as they are created. The Linux and Android story is not over.

Linus Torvalds said a few years ago that someday there would be some technology somewhere that would be better than Linux. Has that time come?

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