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Linux and Android are now more closely linked together

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March 19, 2012

Linux's newest kernel, version 3.3, includes some source code from Google's Android operating system that should help both Android mobile app developers and other Linux-based projects that will soon be used as well in the IT segment, and not just in mobile.

Linux and Android are now two very closely linked open-source projects, but they've also been as notable for how distant they are from each other-- until yesterday that is.

That's when Linus Torvalds, leader of the Linux kernel project, released a version of the OS kernel that bridges the two operating systems together. Version 3.3 of the Linux kernel is the actually beginning of the end of isolation between these two projects.

To be sure, under the hood of every Android phone is a Linux phone-- end of the story, and it's always been that way. But although some programmers and a few mobile app developers writing Android software generally use a Java-like interface, a Google-customized version of Linux handles underlying details such as keyboard input, multitasking among different chores, and keeping needed data readily at hand in memory.

However, Google's Android project has been in a way a form of a code repository-- ie a separate code base that's branched off from the main repository Torvalds oversees at the Web site.

The end result of merging Google's Android with Torvalds "Linux Mainline" version, if all goes well, should be easier programming and therefore faster progress for all parties involved. For its part, Google can benefit from new features added to mainline Linux sooner and with fewer hassles keeping its code in sync with the mainline kernel.

And others using Linux in mobile devices can also benefit from improvements that previously had to be retrieved from Google's separate Android archive system.

Google lifts code liberally from many open-source projects, often contributing its own additions back as well as launching its own open-source works. But sometimes Google prefers to work more in isolation from a project's primary developers, which can lead to tensions given the generally collaborative, code-sharing ethos, and Linux sure isn't any exception.

Another example of where Google's Android workgroup is linking up with its open-source variety is with the WebKit browser engine. Google had worked on its stock Android browser as a separate project of WebKit, but with the arrival of Chrome for Android, the mobile version of its browser is being integrated with the ordinary WebKit project-- something a lot of observers in the Linux community were expecting for over a year now.

Torvalds announced the release of Linux 3.3 late Sunday night on the Linux kernel mailing list. He made no specific note of the Android merge, but it's been under way for months already.

Tim Bird, a Sony programmer who works on the Linux Foundation's consumer-electronics project, announced the "Android mainlining project" in December 2011. "I would like to announce the beginning of a new project to make a concerted effort to mainline security patches and features from Android into the mainline Linux kernel," Bird said.

His words came shortly after Torvalds himself tried to ease tensions between the two camps last November. He said in an interview with Muktware's Swapnil Bhartiya: "Every time there is a fork, and I think actually forks are good things, it means that somebody sees a need and a technical reason to do something different from the standard kernel. But most forks are failures. They find that the things they needed were not actually worth doing and as a result most forks die. Some forks are successful-- Google with Android has really been very successful."

"Now, we are talking about how to say 'Hey you were right, we were wrong, you were successful doing something right.' We are talking about how to merge the good parts," added Torvalds.

Greg Hartman, a longtime Linux kernel developer and new Linux Foundation fellow, said to expect Android kernel components in Linux 3.3 on Google+ at the same time. And in a February interview with Muktware, he added "The 3.3 kernel release will let you boot an Android userspace with no modifications, but without very good power management. The 3.4 kernel release will hopefully have all the power management tools that Android needs in it, along with a few other minor missing infrastructure pieces that didn't make it into the 3.3 kernel release."

"Boot an Android userspace" means that a developer could run Android on a standard system rather than having to fetch one on Google's customized version. That could actually be practical for many programmers-- the large number using Linux in electronics devices with memory and processor power limits, for example. And Mozilla, with its B2G (Boot to Gecko) project for a Linux-based browser operating system, also stands to benefit from the integration. It's currently using the Android open-source project (AOSP) software," said Hartman.

At a February meeting of the Android mainlining project, Linux OS programmers dug into the details of the code merge. One area where there has been some friction is with a Google technology called WakeLock, which lets a programmer tell the kernel that a particular computing process should prevent the computer from going into a low-power sleep state.

Linux News Today documented the initial loathing of WakeLock, which Google developed in isolation. That displeasure doubtless meant more work for Google mending fences than if it had worked closely with mainline kernel developers right at the beginning. But now the Linux community thinks that Google has learned from this mistake.

However, Google still had its own priorities nevertheless, and collaboration takes some time. Nothing is ever achieved in just one day-- Android and Linux isn't any exception.

In other Linux news

Canonical said earlier this morning that is has started to ship the beta version of its Linux Ubuntu 12.04, code-named Precise Pangolin. This is the fourth major release and the first featuring the Unity Desktop.

Ubuntu users may have already made the leap to Unity, many of Canonical's actual customers have likely been waiting for this release.

Overall, LTS editions of Ubuntu are delivered every two years and have extended support from Canonical.

They also set the pace of the coming years' releases.

As with previous LTS releases, the emphasis in Ubuntu 12.04 isn't on new features or must-have upgrades, but on stability, polish and support for those who deploy Ubuntu on a larger scale.

Indeed there is almost nothing in the way of new features in the current beta. Instead, you'll find a number of small tweaks designed to polish up Unity and get it ready for the real world of an LTS release.

This isn't just the primary Ubuntu LTS release that's being polished-- Canonical has also introduced a new Ubuntu "remix" dubbed Ubuntu Business Desktop Remix.

Business Remix, a new feature integrated in 12.04, is aimed squarely at the corporate market and strips out features like the Rhythmbox music player and the various games included in a standard Ubuntu package. Instead, Business Remix users will get VMWare View meaning there's an ELUA OpenJDK 6 and other business workflow software.

In a measure of how seriously it's taking business users, Canonical has also extended the length of support for the 12.04 desktop LTS from three to five years the same as the Ubuntu on the server.

But as can be expected, the Business Remix isn't for the everyday Ubuntu user. In announcing the new remix, Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth was careful to say that Ubuntu isn't creating its own version of the RHEL/Fedora arrangement. Instead, he emphasised that the Business Remix was just another example of Canonical doing more for its customers.

While most Ubuntu users have likely either made their peace with Unity or else moved on to another distribution or the desktop, Ubuntu 12.04 may well be the first-time corporate users encounter Unity. That's why a considerable portion of the effort behind this release has gone into mundane but important tasks such as fixing security holes and polishing the look and feel of Unity.

And don't look for the controversial HUD displays which will one day replace traditional application menus in Unity to turn up in Precise Pangolin.

What Unity does offer in this release is a slightly more polished, and in a few cases, more flexible interface. A new set of fonts are coming with a variety of weights that give Unity a more unified look. Also welcomed is the new option to hide the Launcher, revealing it only when your mouse rolls over the specified area of the screen.

The second alpha release of 12.04 also featured a slider in the Appearance panel to easily resize the Launcher icons, but this had been removed as of the nightly build we tested on the eve of the beta release.

The Ubuntu Software Center has also been tweaked slightly with some small, but nice new features like an opt-in "Recommendations" feature for custom tailored app suggestions (based on what you download after you turn it on). The Software Center also offers multiple screenshots for applications, though as of the beta not many software packages actually have more than one screenshot.

While the improvements and polish in Unity are noticeable, some rough edges still remain. For example, the application and document search features remain very primitive and buggy in this beta version. We installed G-Vim through the Software Center, fired up Unity's search tool and typed in "Vim." Nothing happened. We then switched to the application "lens" and tried again, but still G-Vim was nowhere to be found in the search results.

Clicking on "show more" next to the Installed Apps category finally revealed G-Vim buried amidst three dozen other search results. Thinking perhaps there was some bug that was causing Unity's search feature to not automatically refresh when new software was installed, we restarted the VM and tried again. Still nothing.

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Now, you could argue that searching for "Vim" instead of "GVim" was the problem, but in this day and age a search tool that can't figure out you mean GVim when you type "Vim" should not really claim to be a search tool, correct?

But this is just a beta release, so for now we won't hold a grudge for the notification messages or the overall sluggishness of the interface, but the search feature has been plagued since it debuted and if Canonical expects people to rely on the search tool, it's time to place some serious efforts into improving the results and so far in 12.04, that hasn't happened ast all.

The emphasis on polishing up Unity is slowly yielding results, but there are still plenty of bugs and you would be wise to restrict your use to a virtual machine or non-vital drive.

In other Linux news

Support for Intel's new Lynx Point chipset will soon be available, but more is on the way for Intel Haswell graphics driver code, the semiconductor maker has said today. Intel will soon be releasing its open-source Haswell graphics driver code as the company prepares to provide Linux hardware enablement support for this next-generation Intel CPU micro-architecture that is still one year away, with Ivy Bridge not having been launched yet.

Lynx Point is the chipset that will be launched in conjunction with Intel's Haswell processors next year, just as Sandy Bridge launched with Cougar Point and Ivy Bridge will have Panther Point as its new chipset option.

The Linux patches for supporting Intel's Lynx Point chipset have been arriving on public lists. Among the Intel Lynx Point patches having been presented thus far have been for its HD audio controller, SMBus controller, IDE and AHCI SATA support, TCO Watchdog, and various other areas for the Lynx Point PCH.

Overall, most of these Linux patches for the Lynx Point Project were authored by Seth Heasley at Intel. For all of the Linux kernel-related bits, they should be merged by the Linux 3.4 kernel.

Hitting Linux version 3.4 will ensure that the initial Intel Haswell-Lynx Point support is entering Ubuntu 12.10, Fedora 18, and other H2'2012 Linux distributions.

Intel's Haswell support will certainly be improved and more stabilized with the Linux 3.5 kernel, just as it took Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge to mature for a few kernel cycles, which hopefully will be the kernel to make the cut for Ubuntu 12.10 and others.

But besides enabling the general chipset functionality of the Lynx Point Project and the forthcoming graphics support patches for Haswell's competitive graphics processor, initial GCC and LLVM compiler support for Haswell is already out in the public spotlight as well.

The compiler work for Haswell adds in support for AVX2 (Advanced Vector Extensions 2), FMA and other new CPU instructions that will be introduced early next year when Haswell starts shipping.

Source: Linux News Today.

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