Why Android might just kill GNU/Linux. Quickly.

Why Android might just kill GNU/Linux. Quickly.

I write this article exactly 24 hours after receiving my Galaxy Tab 10.1. It's something I've been wanting for a long time. I had to wait for the dispute between Apple and Samsung to settle (Samsung actually lost on millions of dollars worth of sales thanks to software patents, but that's another story). After all that, I came to the realisation that we are in front of a forking path. On one side there is the death of GNU/Linux as we know it. On the other side, there is a new exciting world where free software is still relevant. I am not writing this just to be "sensational": here is why.

We have all seen the gadgetification of software: it started with Nokia phones that allowed you to install extra applications and games. It exploded with Apple, and the glorification of the "app market" (which is, excuse me, a generic term). It "inspired" the Android market, and -- let's not forget -- the Mac OS X app market. It also inspired Ubuntu's own "app market".

The world of software has changed. In the (recent) past, software was something to install and use. Today, with the "app markets", software is becoming a gadget to play with.

All of these "app markets" have something in common (that includes Ubuntu's): applications can cost money (users will know it), can have a $0 price, or can be free as in freedom -- and the user has absolutely no way of telling the difference between the last two options. Free is free is free. It's a cool gadget: I will use it.

Honest hat on: With my Galaxy tab, I am a "app market" user. I look for an app -- often, I admit, a game. I click on it, I install it, I play with it. I purchased Fruit Ninja, one of the most enjoyable games since I was a kid. Yes, I am sucked in. Badly. And I am the Editor In Chief of Free Software Magazine.

Android, based on Linux, might well be what actually made GNU/Linux irrelevant. Ouch.

Changing the route

Here is what I believe should happen in order to change things:

  1. Develop an alternative, fantastic replacement for the Market. Something like F-droid is a huge step in the right direction -- I am not sure if there are others yet. My personal Kudos to the guys developing it. But, for now it's only a "good start": the competition is tough (it's the proprietary market itself). The Android Market has a lot of nice features (user ratings and comments being just two of them). There is also a lot to do in terms of apps available in F-droid.

  2. Offer a way to turn a proprietary-filled tablet (like the Galaxy Tab, but really, any one) into something that only uses free software. A simple, one-button process. It is possible: the market could be f-droid, the e-book reader could be Cool Reader (available from f-droid!), and so on. It would be great if there were an app to do this: something that would place all of the proprietary applications in a sub-folder, and would place all the free ones (and I mean, free as in freedom) in the home page and as default handlers. Using a free software launcher like ADW.Launcher would make this possible.

  3. Eventually, offer a full Android system entirely based on free software (that is, one where those free apps are not installed at all). This might be very much a up-hill battle, since even installing your own ROM is such a hard task...)

Point 1 is a matter of making alternatives to the Android Market as relevant as possible, by building something that looks even better than the what comes with Android. Point 2 might seem useless, but it isn't: tablets seem to imply a level of laziness in users. A one-shop stop that places all of the proprietary apps away, and only use free software, would be the way to go. Point 3 is possible, but a situation where a ROM is installed by default, or where it takes little effort to swap ROM with the free software one is something I don't expect in the short term -- unfortunately.

So, maybe nit everything is lost?

Maybe the situation is not desperate just yet. However, it's pretty bad: proprietary software for tablets us very polished. Getting people to use free software will be harder if proprietary software becomes more established and ingrained in the way people interact with computers.



Ryan Cartwright's picture


We've been here before - heck you've said similar before and also spoken about this "ideal" of installing software as an app but sorry I don't buy it.

Firstly you've focussed on a single (and small) part of the hardware "market" - tablets. While I agree there should be a simple effective way of making a tablet (or any computer device) into free software only. I don't see it happening and to be honest I don't want it to. I'd rather build my own software experience by choosing the applications I use myself.

But here's the real crunch: You make a leap from "Android on tablet sucks you in" to "Android will kill GNU/Linux and quickly". I just can't see it. For a start you're forgetting the server space which might not look as shiny as the portable one but probably makes up the majority of GNU/Linux usage even now (and with good reason). Secondly tablets will not kill the desktop. So far - and many have tried - nobody has come up with an input system for text which beats the keyboard for versatility and any future the computing industry will include the keyboard. This changes the type of "app" we install and use and thus there will always be a vast array of software which will not (or is inappropriate to) run on a tablet device.

So whilst tablets and the gadetisation could bring in more hurdles for GNU/Linux I don't think it will make that much of a dent.

openuniverse's picture

Yeah, I realize you want another go at this, but it's too bad this article ignores the feedback of the one like it before.

Why give Apple all the credit? They didn't invent WebKit, though they did contribute substantially to KHTML when they turned it into WebKit. Similarly they didn't invent UNIX or BSD, but they did manage to make a hyperusable version of it. And the app market is not half as innovative as it gets credit for, it mostly existed already (In the free software world.) Ease of install from pre-selected categories in one place? Already had that. Ease of charging money? That's an innovation, but barely an invention, it's a tweak.

I'm more concerned about the logos than the software. Used to be, a gnu represented freedom. Then a penguin took over, representing companies (and individuals) exploiting (making use of) that freedom. Tux rarely pays homage to Gnu (you only see them together when FSF puts them together) and Ubuntu whitewashes the penguin. The way Android is going, MOST PEOPLE won't know the robot and the penguin have anything to do with each other.

So in a more superficial (but not entirely meaningless) way, you're totally right. From a user-awareness standpoint, this is only going to hurt more and more. But people will still be using free software, sometimes they'll just think Google (not Shuttleworth, not Murdock, not even Torvalds, and certainly not Stallman) came up with the whole thing. This is a problem no one but FSF talks about, but it goes far beyond just Linux originally overshadowing GNU. ALL the relevant logos should all be there, IMO. At least on the "box" ("download" page?) somewhere, like all the relevant logos on the back of a music CD. Enforceable? Nah. Good? VERY.

Author information

Tony Mobily's picture


Tony is the founder and the Editor In Chief of Free Software Magazine