Linux group could hasten 64-bit Android for ARM mobile devices

The Linaro consortium is making contributions to the development of the Chrome browser for 64-bit Android

Linaro, the open-source development consortium for Linux on ARM architecture, is working on software, tools and drivers that could hasten the release of 64-bit Android.

The move is significant because, apart from Apple's iPhone 5s, no 64-bit smartphones have been announced, a situation that analysts partly attribute to the lack of 64-bit Android for ARM processors, which are the most widely used in handsets and tablets.

The release of 64-bit Android will depend on Google, whose current Android 4.4 version code-named KitKat is 32-bit. But 64-bit Android adoption will be swift if software, drivers and tools are ready ahead of the OS release, said George Grey, speaking Sunday at the Linaro Connect Asia 2014 developer conference in Macau.

"Clearly, our members want to work together on common Android software for ARMv8 so that when it is released by Google, we can accelerate deployment," Grey said. One of Linaro's priorities is making contributions for 64-bit Android, and the organization keeps Google updated on developments.

A slide during Grey's keynote, which was webcast, mentioned Linaro contributing to the 64-bit Chromium browser for Android and OpenSSL for secure communications. The consortium is also developing reference platforms that could create secure environments for media streaming and other forms of data transfer and communication.

Linaro's 64-bit Android efforts are focused on Linux kernel contributions associated with the ARMv8 instruction set architecture, used in 64-bit mobile chips announced by member companies Qualcomm, MediaTek and Advanced Micro Devices. Linaro members also include Samsung, IBM, ARM Holdings, LG Electronics, Canonical, Nokia, Facebook and Hewlett-Packard.

The 64-bit version of Android could pave the way for faster handsets. But it is not clear if smartphone makers will release 64-bit handsets first, or if Google will announce a 64-bit OS. The 64-bit transition is a game of chicken and egg, much like the PC space more than a decade ago, said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates.

"Do you come out with 64 bit chips first and then upgrade OS and apps to 64-bit, or the other way around?" Gold said.

Google declined to comment on 64-bit Android, with a spokesman saying in an email late last week that it was "premature" to talk about the OS. Chip makers Qualcomm and MediaTek did not talk about software during announcements of new 64-bit, ARM-based smartphone chips at last week's Mobile World Congress trade show.

The ARM ecosystem is preparing for 64-bit Android, but it's not clear when the OS will come out, said Ian Ferguson, vice president of segment marketing at ARM, in an interview last week.

But 64-bit smartphones based on ARM will have backward compatibility and will be able to run 32-bit Android, which could be later upgraded.

"You'll see platforms deployed that are full 64-bit ready, but running a 32-bit instantiation" of Android, Ferguson said.

Google could release a 64-bit version of Android this year, possibly during the Google I/O conference midyear or later, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

A 64-bit version of Android was shown at MWC, though not for ARM but on a handset with Intel's 64-bit x86 Atom chip called Merrifield. Intel internally worked on x86 chipset support and completed OS work early. Development for ARM is slower as Google works with many partners and the open-source community to tune the OS for chips and handsets, analysts said.

But Grey was confident that a 64-bit Android OS would take off this year in mobile devices.

"This year is ... going to be the year of 64-bit in mobile following on from what Apple did last year with the first 64-bit mobile phone," Grey said.

Intel views support for 64-bit Android on its x86 chip as a short-term advantage over ARM rivals, but Grey said that ARM-based device and chip makers need to quickly close that gap.

"We have some serious competitors who would like to see ARM stumble as it moves to 64-bit. We have to make sure that doesn't happen," Grey said.

ARM and others have been contributing 64-bit code and tools to the AOSP (Android Open Source Project), which is available to all companies and developers. Linaro is providing a 64-bit Linux kernel as a demonstration platform on which an "Android user space" could be built. The consortium is also working on common projects like the development of the QEMU system model, a hardware emulator that can replicate a fully virtualized OS environment.

"There are several things that Linaro has been doing related to Android [64-bit], including a lot of work on the QEMU system model" for ARMv8, Grey said. "That is being delivered by the end of this month and is needed to be able to deliver the Android SDK."

But development is being stymied by the lack of 64-bit ARM-based hardware. Grey asked Linaro member companies to provide hardware on which code could be properly tested. The current testing is done on prototypes and models of chips.

"They are not fast and they do not have the functionality of a real piece of hardware," Grey said. "There's not a lot of time left. Initial hardware devices are going to hit the market very soon and the software has to be really good."

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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