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Wednesday, 05 January 2011 14:36

Linux, powering that incredible Android

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Chances are you or someone you know is carrying around a Linux-powered mobile device in their pocket. Thanks to the clout offered by Google Android is on its way to being the ubiquitous smartphone and tablet platform.

First things first: if you're a new reader, welcome to the Linux Distillery! If you're a long-time reader, welcome back!

The Linux Distillery has been running in iTWire since mid 2007 but spent most of 2010 in hiatus. It's back, I'm back, and despite rain, hail or shine you'll find us here each Tuesday. Be sure to add the Linux Distillery Feed to your RSS reader.

This brings us to today - January 2011. Now, Linux evangelists are always on the lookout for signs that the free open-source operating system is sneaking into the mainstream.

Actually, Linux has always had a place in the enterprise and server world but it's been a mystery, if known at all, to the general consuming public where Microsoft Windows's model of bundling with most every computer reigns supreme.

Time is a funny thing. Empires rise, empires fall. Three years ago, popular hardware vendor ASUS surprised the world by going against the trend of ever-increasingly powered computers when it brought out the diminutive 7" Eee Linux PC.

This machine was tiny - and not just in size, but in hardware specifications too. Yet, it flew off the shelves because it was cheap. Helping keep the cost down was the operating system chosen, a modified Xandros Linux. Unlike laptops pre-loaded with Microsoft Windows there were absolutely no software licensing fees added to the pricetag of each unit.

The Eee single-handedly created the entire netbook market. HP, Toshiba, Dell, Acer, and all other major vendors  subsequently released their own netbooks. Oh, but time and fate was not to be on the penguin's side!


Whereas originally Linux was the key to the success of the netbook allegiances soon changed to Microsoft. While this was not to the advantage of Linux, consumers certainly received the benefit when Microsoft felt the heat and tweaked Windows 7 such that it was a viable netbook operating system unlike its predecessor Windows Vista.

However, despite the turnaround in netbooks another revolution happened in 2010, once again creating a brand new market space. Unless you lived in isolation you'll be well aware of Apple's iPad which was far and away the massive gadget success story of last year.

Like it, love it, loathe it or even want it but with no idea what you'll use it for, the iPad, like the Eee, created demand for a device which previously did not exist.

Now, it would be all too easy for me to claim the iPad as a Linux success story. The iPad, like Apple's MacOS, runs on a UNIX-based operating system, but it doesn't actually share code with Linux.

No, where Linux comes in is next. The smartphone market hotted up.

It was only mere years ago that Microsoft's Windows Mobile platform was the lone smartphone dog in town. Actually, the moniker "smartphone" wasn't even in use at the time. Research in Motion's spectacular BlackBerry platform rode in, then Apple's iPhone and now even the Internet megalith Google has produced its Linux-based Android platform. Former mobile supremos like Nokia have fallen behind while users enjoy previously unprecedented levels of mobile connectivity and applications.

Windows Mobile had the advantage of being on the scene early, but was far from beloved. I personally found it unacceptable to need to constantly reboot my phone. The rise of Microsoft's brand new, rewritten, Windows Phone 7 platform is silent testimony to the horrors of the past.

Yet, even the previous juggernaut of the iPhone has begun to decline with increasing numbers of Android-fueled devices on the scene.


Just as the iPad naturally extended the mobile market to tablets, so too the fight has evolved with Samsung's awesome Galaxy Tab going head-to-head against the iPad.

Like many, I have an iPad, an iPod and an iPhone. Apple really has achieved some spectacular lock-in by making it a cinch to synchronise so many devices from the one pool of media and applications.

Nevertheless, I hungered for something more; something that let me truly own and shape my mobile experience. It needn't take anyone long to find disgruntlements aplenty with Apple's system and the restrictions it places. Want to customise your SMS tone? You can't. Want to use it as a modem? You can't. Want to use it as a WiFi hub for other devices? You can't. Want to install software that isn't subject to the arcane and mysterious policies of the AppStore? You can't. (Well, ok, you can jailbreak, but that's not the out-of-the-box experience that most have.)

I'd tried Android handhelds in the past. The HTC Desire was particularly aesthetic, but what I really wanted to see was an Android tablet that competed with the iPad.

Australian telco Telstra brought out its alliterationally-titled Telstra T-Touch Tab for the bargain price of $299 towards the end of 2010. However, you get what you pay for. With a 7" resistive screen that needs force to manipulate it was barely as usable as the iPad. The sluggish processor and dull imagery left me wanting. By all means, this unit has its place - for $299 it really gives tremendous functionality.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab has been one of the tech industry's long-awaited greatly-hyped heavily-watched gizmos of the last months but I was dismayed to hear it was a 7" model. Immediately, I assumed it offered little beyond the Telstra T-Touch Tab but I was so wrong.

Once I got my hands on the Samsung unit the difference was as stark as night and day. The Galaxy Tab zips through screens and applications. It responds to the lightest touch. Its screen is bright and crisp. It really is what an Android device ought to be - and more than that, what a tablet ought to be. Despite the smaller screen size, I have not found anything I cannot do on the Samsung Galaxy Tab that I can do on the iPad - and it even fits in my pocket.

The tablet and mobile space is the field where the next great operating system war shall be played out. Android has made its mark. It's becoming a household name. And behind that Android is a kernel known as Linux.

Welcome back to the forefront, Linux.


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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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