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Is Google Thwarting Android-x86 Development?

Is Google Thwarting Android-x86 Development?

One of the most challenging hurdles to porting Android code to work on x86 PCs and non-smartphone and tablet devices has been a lack of vendor support, including recognition from Google. In particular, there has been no Board Support Package help for system development. "We need to develop everything ourselves, including the drivers and HALs," noted project maintainer Chih-Wei Huang.

By Jack M. Germain LinuxInsider ECT News Network
03/26/14 1:56 PM PT

Has Google been spreading FUD to discourage computer makers from using an Android OS retooled to run on legacy computers?

The maintainer of the Android-x86 Project has suggested that the Justice Department should investigate whether Google has been interfering with adoption of the open source code his community is developing.

The behind-the-scenes open source software development world is hardly free of rivalry and power plays. The release of the latest version of an open source Android OS to run as an alternative Linux distro may stall without the support of Android creator, Google.

There is a waiting market for the KitKat version of Android-X86 for desktops and laptops. That market is ripe, especially for its use as a thin client or in a dual OS setup, according to Chih-Wei Huang, project maintainer for the Android-x86 Project. Yet expected product releases have not appeared.

"For example, Asus announced the dual OS laptop TD300LA in the CES and got very positive feedback. However, Google asked to stop the product so Asus are unable to ship it, sadly," Huang told LinuxInsider.

Open Source Fair Play?

Google might not be willing to cooperate with a companion Android project for monetary reasons. However, Android code development can be pursued independently by the Android-x86 community or other vendors, suggested Huang.

"In my opinion, Google is becoming evil to use its monopolization in Android marketing. The U.S. Department of Justice should examine if Google violates the Antitrust law," he suggested.

The open source nature of the Android-x86 Project should not preclude or require official sanction by Google, said Ron Munitz, CTO of Nubo Software.

Nubo is developing an Android version that runs on servers. Munitz has volunteered as a programmer on parts of the Android-x86 Project.

No Gray Area

"It is not critical to have Google support on this project, as the Android-x86 Project is some sort of independent vendor. It obviously depends on the open sourcing of the Android code, which happens only after a Google device is announced, but otherwise it is independent," Munitz told LinuxInsider.

The only thing that increasingly is becoming problematic for other vendors is that the general purpose Android-x86 operating system is not part of the Google partnership program, he explained. In other words, if a device running the Android OS is not certified for acceptance, it is not eligible to use Google Apps.

Previously, this would not be such a huge issue, noted Munitz, but Google now integrates more services into its ecosystem and the standard Android Open Source Project code base.

Also, critical services such as Google Cloud Messaging require Google Services now. So some applications may not work with a particular product.

Still, "that is no different than any other non Google-partnered vendor," said Munitz.

Android Distro

A team of independent developers last month released the latest code for public testing of Android-x86 version 4.4-RC1 (KitKat-x86). The Android-x86 Project is porting the Android code to run on legacy computers.

The Android-x86 distro can be installed to hard drive on a desktop or laptop computer or run in live session from a CD or USB drive. The process is nearly identical to that of any other Linux distribution.

Google developed Android as an open source operating system for mobile phones and tablets. Over the last 18 months or so, several computer makers have used Google's Android OS to run on special hardware as an all-in-one desktop tablet built into a large touchscreen.

The Android-x86 project would make the Android OS more viable as an alternative operating system to run on computers powered by Intel and AMD x86 processors, including netbooks and laptops.

Deal Breaker

Asus executives did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Huang's assessment of the alleged thwarted hardware release. Google officials several times declined requests for interviews to discuss the Android-x86 Project.

Media accounts prior to CES 2014 in January reported plans for Asus to debut a new laptop/tablet hybrid featuring a 4th Generation Intel Haswell processor paired with a 1366 x 768 pixel display. Some product descriptions noted the product would be capable of dual-booting Windows 8.1 and Android.

Other reports suggested the Asus TD300LA was slated to launch during CES 2014 as a two-in-one device. The new feature would combine both the laptop and the tablet into a single processor.

Vapor Hardware

Asus did announce at CES 2014 the Transformer Book Duet TD300. The company described this device as a quad-mode, dual OS laptop and tablet running Windows and Android on an Intel 4th Gen Core processor.

The Asus website does show a press announcement for the Transformer Book Duet TD300, but the its search tool shows no results for the TD300LA. Even more interesting is that all media mention of either product ends with the close of CES 2014. There's no purchase information or product availability evident.

Lacking Partner Support

One of the biggest or most challenging hurdles Huang and his fellow coders faced in porting the Android code to work on x86 PCs and non-smartphone and tablet devices was a lack of vendor support. That lack of support included recognition from Google. In particular, there was no Board Support Package help for system development.

"Unlike Android phone/tablet makers, which can get BSP support from vendors, we need to develop everything ourselves, including the drivers and HALs (Hardware Abstraction Layer)," said Huang.

Vendors usually refuse to provide any help. An example is the Intel PowerVR GPU, he added.

"We are unable to provide hardware OpenGL acceleration on it because it requires proprietary libraries and firmware. I have asked Intel to provide the libraries to the public several times, but Intel just ignored me," he said.

Pockets of Interest

Despite the lack of cooperation or recognition from Google and its Android partner vendors, interest in the Android-x86 exists among some smaller vendors, according to Huang -- but they are not mainstream or even domestic.

Nevertheless, "they sent hardware to me for evaluating and development," Huang said.

For example, Tegatech (Tegav2 tablet), WeTab (Wetab tablet) and some small Taiwan vendors expressed considerable interest. Huang is not sure if they really have shipped Android-x86-based products, though. He thinks big vendors will be more included to work with Intel directly.


Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear. You can connect with him on Google+.


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