Linux Gives Up on 6-Year LTS: That’s Fine for PCs, But Bad for Android

The Linux community has announced that it will be cutting back the long-term support (LTS) period for its kernel from six years down to just two. LTS was originally implemented in 2017 to help embedded devices but, six years later, it has become too much work for the community to maintain. Linux Weekly News executive editor, Jonathan Corbet, confirmed the changes, citing both a lack of usage and support and the burnout suffered by maintainers, many of whom are unpaid workers.

All current Linux kernels will continue to honour their existing six-year end-of-life timelines, but new versions will now be on a two-year cycle. When the LTS program first started, it was always intended to be an optional thing, with an initial two-year projected end-of-life (EOL) that could be extended as long as there was industry support. However, as the reality of the workload became clear, all versions received a mandatory six-year lifespan.

While this shortened LTS period may be fine for personal computers, it raises concerns for Android devices and, especially, Internet of Things (IoT) devices. In the case of PCs, a two-year support window between kernel updates is sufficient, but for embedded devices that don’t receive kernel updates, two years comprises almost the entire consumer support window and development cycle. The original LTS extension was made with Android and IoT devices in mind, with Google announcing it during an Android Linux talk made by developer, Iliyan Malchev.

Android’s kernel development processes are more complex than those used in PCs, with forking from a new Linux LTS to make the Android Common kernel then sent to system-on-a-chip vendors like Qualcomm, who then fork it again for each model of SoC, which is then forked again by device makers for each model of device. This process has always taken a while, with the current situation seeing Android 14 released with support for Linux 5.4, a kernel that is already four years old.

Unfortunately, Android users are no better off now than they were in 2017 when the LTS extension was first mentioned and, in some cases, may face even worse support. For example, smartwatches currently use a 4-year-old kernel, while even Google’s own Pixel 6 is still operating on a 3-year-old kernel. Although Google has outlined plans to eventually offer major kernel updates, it seems that this will still be some time away.

In conclusion, the decision by the Linux community to reduce the LTS period from six years down to two is likely to cause significant issues for embedded devices, particularly those used with Android and IoT. The Linux community has cited mounting workloads for maintainers and lagging industry support as the primary concerns and has acted accordingly. The decision will likely pose significant technological challenges for the future, as compatibility issues arise, leading to the need for newer, more updated technology to emerge.

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