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Is Android really just Linux?
Is Android just Linux? This is one of those frustrating questions that seems like it should have a straightforward ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. However, the Android and Linux communities have been debating this for years.
So in this article, let’s clear up the confusion surrounding the different kinds of software someone may have in mind when they use the term ‘Linux’. After that, we’ll work through the arguments that inevitably creep in every time someone brings up this debate.
Is Android just Linux?
There are two factors that have made it particularly difficult to reach a definitive answer in this long-running debate:
- People regularly use the word “Linux” to refer to a number of related, but distinctly different things.
- There’s no universally accepted definition of what makes a piece of software Linux.
When someone says the word “Linux,” they may be referring to:
- The Linux kernel. This is a small, but essential part of an operating system. The kernel is responsible for interfacing with a device’s hardware, providing services to the rest of the system, and performing tasks such as managing the device’s CPU and memory. The Linux kernel, like any kernel, can only function as part of a wider operating system. It’s impossible to have an operating system that consists solely of a Linux kernel. Since Android is a complete operating system, we can immediately rule out classifying Android as a Linux kernel.
- A Linux distribution, or distro. The term is also commonly used to describe an operating system that contains the Linux kernel and additional software such as utilities, libraries, and a GUI. Many distros also bundle pre-installed applications such as web browsers, text editors, and music players. Even if this additional software was designed specifically to run on the Linux kernel, it’s not part of the Linux kernel. When discussing operating systems that use the Linux kernel, the terms ‘distribution,’ ‘distro’ and ‘operating system’ are interchangeable. Since anyone can take the Linux kernel, add their own software, and create a complete operating system, there are countless Linux distros currently available.
- GNU/Linux. The majority of Linux distributions are a combination of the Linux kernel plus GNU software, which has led some people to argue that we should all be referring to Linux distros as GNU/Linux. This is a whole other debate, so to help keep things simple I’ll be using the terms ‘Linux distribution’ and ‘distro’ throughout this article — just note that there’s a strong link between the Linux kernel and GNU software.
While there’s nowhere near as much confusion surrounding the term “Android,” there are still two distinct strains of the Android operating system.
The first is the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), which is maintained by Google but free to use by anybody. While it is possible to use this source code to build a functioning operating system that you can install on a smartphone or tablet, the end result will lack the functionality that most users expect from their Android experience. This includes Google Mobile Services (GMS). GMS includes Google apps and APIs that, for many users, have become a fundamental part of the Android experience. AOSP is open-source, but the experience that your typical end-user expects from Android isn’t provided by AOSP.
Your typical Android smartphone uses an AOSP base for its software, along with a significant amount of proprietary code from Google and the device manufacturer.
Most of the arguments for and against classifying Android as Linux apply to both interpretations of Android, but there are a few instances where the answer differs, depending on whether you define Android as AOSP, or as the operating system that ships on your typical Android smartphone or tablet.
The argument for why Android is Linux
There’s really only one argument in favor of classifying Android as Linux, but it’s a strong one: every Android smartphone or tablet contains a Linux kernel. You can even see what version of the kernel is installed on your device, by opening its ‘Settings’ app and navigating to About Device > Software info.
Android runs the Linux kernel, but doesn't have everything else you'd expect from a Linux distro.
However, Android isn’t just the Linux kernel; it’s a fully-functioning operating system that features lots of additional libraries, a GUI, apps, and much more. So when we ask “is Android Linux,” we’re actually asking “is Android a Linux distro?”
Since it’s impossible to even estimate how many Linux distros are out there, it’s very difficult to put together a list of rules about what makes an operating system a Linux distro.
Beyond the presence of the Linux kernel, the definition of a Linux distro is pretty open to interpretation. So in the rest of this article, let’s the arguments people most commonly put forward when arguing against classifying Android as a Linux distribution.
Why Android isn’t Linux
With the argument for why Android resembles Linux out of the way, let’s look at a few reasons why you might think the two aren’t similar.
Android doesn’t use the standard Linux kernel
In order to create an operating system that meets the unique needs of mobile devices, the Android team made a number of changes to the Linux kernel. That includes the addition of specialized libraries, APIs, and tools that are mostly BSD-derived or written from scratch, specifically for Android.
Since the entire argument in favor of classifying Android as a Linux distro hinges on the fact that Android uses the Linux kernel, this point might seem like it’s the end of the argument, but it’s not that unusual for a Linux distro to make changes to the kernel.
The Linux kernel is released under the GNU General Public License, so anyone is free to modify its source code, which many Linux distros have done. When it comes to the question of just how drastically the Android team modified the Linux kernel, the Embedded Linux wiki concludes that the amount of changes implemented by the Android team “is not extremely large, and is on the order of changes that are customarily made to the Linux kernel by embedded developers.”
It doesn’t include the GNU software and libraries
If you agree that GNU software is a defining characteristic of a Linux distro, to the point where we should all be referring to Linux distros as GNU/Linux, then there’s no way that Android can be a Linux distro. Android includes very little GNU software. Most notably, the Android team developed a customized C library called Bionic, rather than using the GNU C Library.
Even if you disagree that a Linux distro has to include GNU software, then there’s still no denying that the absence of GNU makes Android very different from the majority of the Linux distro community.
You cannot run Linux apps on Android — and vice versa
If you picked several different Linux distros at random, then chances are that the Linux kernel would be the only software component they have in common. In fact, Android has so little in common with other Linux distros that it’s impossible to run regular Linux apps on Android, at least not natively.
The reverse is also true: Android apps require Android-specific libraries, a runtime, plus a range of other software that’s found only in the Android OS, so by default you cannot run Android apps on any platform other than Android.
Android is a Google product
Google may make the base Android source code publicly available via AOSP, but Google develops the next release of AOSP privately. In fact, the AOSP website clearly states that “Google retains responsibility for the strategic direction of Android as a platform and a product.”
In addition, although non-Google employees can contribute to AOSP in various capacities, the AOSP website makes it very clear that project leads are usually Google employees. There’s also the small matter of Google owning the rights to the Android name and logo, so even if you do build an operating system based on AOSP code, you’ll still need to liaise with Google if you want to release your work under the Android name.
While some Linux distributions do have strong links to a particular company (Canonical and Ubuntu immediately spring to mind) it’s unusual for a Linux distro to be developed in private, entirely by a single organization.
Android’s ‘open source’ status is up for debate
Despite the Free Software Foundation’s recommendation that developers remove all proprietary software from their Linux distributions, there’s no strict rule that states Linux distributions cannot include proprietary software. In reality, many distros include vendor-compiled binary drivers, also known as binary blobs, so really the question is: how open is Android, compared to your ‘typical’ Linux distro?
While many open-source enthusiasts would agree that AOSP is far from an ideal open source project, its code is freely available for other people to modify and distribute.
However, by the time the AOSP base reaches the Android user, a lot of proprietary code has been added, and this is true regardless of whether you opt for stock Android, or a device that features manufacturer modifications.
By the time an Android device reaches retail shelves, a lot of proprietary code has been added.
While this doesn’t necessarily disqualify Android from being labeled as a Linux distribution, it’s worth noting that much of the code that users can see and interact with is proprietary. We’ve already discussed Google Mobile Services, but other manufacturer-specific modifications exist too, like Samsung’s One UI skin.
Although many Linux distros do include proprietary code, for many people the term ‘Linux’ has a strong association with open source software, and all of that user-facing proprietary code does tend to make Android feel much more closed than your typical Linux distro.
You cannot customize the Android OS — by default
While it’s typically pretty easy to modify a Linux distribution at the operating system level, by default Android owners cannot access the underlying operating system on their smartphone or tablet, and sensitive partitions are locked down tight. However, by default is key here. You can gain access to areas of your device that are normally closed off, through a process known as rooting.
So, while Android is considerably less customizable than your typical Linux distribution, there are ways to gain access to the underlying operating system.
So does Android resemble a Linux distro after all?
Let’s circle back to our original question: Is Android a Linux distribution? Ultimately (and frustratingly) it all hinges on how you define a Linux distro. If you agree that we should all be referring to Linux distros as GNU/Linux instead of Linux, then the answer is no, as Android includes very little GNU software.
If you define ‘Linux distro’ as an operating system that includes the Linux kernel and fulfills one or more additional criteria, then again, the answer is very likely to be no. Although every Android smartphone and tablet does include a Linux kernel, Android doesn’t completely fulfill any of the other characteristics commonly associated with Linux distros.
Android is very clearly the product of one company, it’s incompatible with regular Linux apps, and even though AOSP is open source, the version of Android you encounter on commercial devices feels considerably more closed than you’d expect from a Linux distro, thanks to the inclusion of user-facing proprietary code.
However, if your definition of a Linux distro is an operating system that’s based on the Linux kernel, then Android is a Linux distro. It may be an unusual, highly-specialized distro, but it’s every bit as much of a distro as Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian, and any other operating system that’s based on the Linux kernel.