What is the kernel in the smartphone

Android: Linux kernel is to be standardized and updated via the Play Store

Modularization: This is increasingly Google's answer to the Android update problem. As part of Project Treble, Android 8 was used to separate the "user space", i.e. everything that users actually understand by Android, from the hardware-specific components such as drivers. Project Mainline followed with Android 10, in the framework of which individual components of the operating system are standardized and from now on delivered by Google itself to all smartphones - regardless of the actual manufacturer. The next big step is now emerging.

Everything comes together

As the software developer Luca Stefani, who is working on the free Android variant LineageOS, tracked down in the source code of the operating system, the Linux kernel of a smartphone should in future be updatable via the Play Store - i.e. independent of major updates. But not only that, the whole thing goes hand in hand with a second development: the so-called "Generic Kernel Image" (GKI). Google wants to establish a uniform Linux kernel under this name, which will then run on Android devices from various manufacturers.

It has been known for a long time that the development is going in this direction, after all it is a multi-year undertaking, the threads of which are now converging. Nevertheless, there are still some unanswered questions. For example, it is unclear whether the use of the GKI will be mandatory for Android manufacturers in the future. So far it is only known that new compatibility tests are intended to ensure that in future all devices of a chip generation must also be bootable with the same GKI - but not necessarily that the manufacturers use this standard image by default. But that would also be a big step forward, as it enables the development of uniform drivers for individual kernel generations. These too could - and in some cases should - be kept up to date via the Play Store in the future.

Lapse of time

It is also unclear when all of this will really be ready for decision. According to earlier plans, the generic kernel images are to be used for the first time with a kernel based on Linux 5.4. Since the kernel version under Android is always tied to individual hardware generations, this would probably mean that it should not be ready until next year at the earliest, because then there would be Linux 5.4 for the first devices - including the next generation of Qualcomm's Snapdragon platform - your turn. According to Mishaal Rahman, the use of GKIs should be at least partially mandatory, but this will probably not be before Android 12, which is planned for next summer.

assessment

A uniform kernel that is supplied directly by Google, and is also kept up to date via the Play Store, would in any case be a great benefit in terms of Android security. After all, Google could use it to quickly clean up security problems in another central component on all devices. In addition, it is generally known that hardware manufacturers have so far sometimes had major deficits when installing bug fixes for the Linux kernel, so this would also be a positive development from a stability perspective. Above all, however, this clears the way for uniform drivers that can also be updated independently of the device manufacturer - and it is precisely these that currently contain the majority of the critical security gaps that are currently being tracked down month after month. (Andreas Proschofsky, July 28, 2020)