'GNU/Linux', 'Linux' -- What's the diff?

Posted by dcparris on Jun 29, 2006 8:30 AM EDT
LXer; By Terry Vessels
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  LXer Feature: 29-Jun-06

Why do Linux advocates argue over whether to call their operating system 'Linux' or 'GNU/Linux'? It's all open source, right? At this point there are blood pressures rising among free software advocates, while any casual software user reading this is simply thinking, "Yeah, so?"


People get involved with free software. They embrace it, cherish it and want to enlighten everyone else about why this zero-price software is so very valuable. Because of the nature of software, the earliest adopters are geeks. Geeks pick nits. When they begin to try to educate non-geeks about technical matters, geeks debate endlessly over the nits they pick. This is not madness; it is a result of the type of attention to minute detail that is necessary for the creation and maintenance of complex hardware and software. A misplaced or missing semicolon can literally kill.

One of the terminology nits that has been simmering for years among Free/Open Source Software advocates is the debate over the proper name for the operating system commonly called "Linux". The patriarch of the GNU system, Richard M. Stallman, is

vocally opposed to calling the operating system by the name of its kernel alone
. He insists on using the term "GNU/Linux" or "GNU+Linux", in recognition of the thousands of developers who have worked on the GNU system over the years. Naturally, there are many people who consider his insistence on the name "GNU/Linux" to be unwarranted and even annoying. This group is just as insistent that naming the operating system by its kernel is sufficient and a long-standing tradition.

Dave Whitinger, publisher of LXer, and I, a formerly long-haired but now just white-haired free software advocate, recently had a mild email debate over this issue. Since neither of us are rabid advocates of our respective view on 'Linux' versus 'GNU/Linux', the discussion may be useful to others who, likewise, are not inclined to beat plowshares into swords over the terminology.

I am in Stallman's camp in this matter, though not as insistent as he. This less intense commitment on my part is understandable, as I have not devoted 22 years of my life working and fighting for free software. I deliberately use the name "GNU/Linux" or "GNU+Linux" out of respect for GNU.

Dave is slightly in the opposing camp, though not fervently so. He is not opposed to the name "GNU/Linux", as evidenced by his use of it on LXer, such as in the About page.

Dave was beginning to work at Red Hat about the time that I was staring at the blinking cursor after having booted Slackware for the first time and wondering, "Now what?" He launched LinuxToday about the time that I was learning how to connect to the Internet through a 486 computer running Red Hat.

Opening Dialogue

Our discussion began as I was sifting through "pending" stories, looking for things to post to LXer's Newswire. We just stumbled into the naming discussion. In the following, "TV" is me, and "DW" is Dave.

Just edited a story about Xandros and discovered Xandros is not among the groups listed.

I have added Xandros to the categories.

Also, when the category 'Linux' is auto-selected, couldn't 'GNU' also be selected? Most of the time when a news story talks about 'Linux' they're really talking about a distribution, which includes 'GNU'. Unselecting 'GNU' for the times when the story is about the kernel alone, e.g., an embedded device or the kernel developers, would amount to much fewer times than selecting it now.

My original intention with adding the GNU category was for articles that are specifically about the GNU project.

Examples would be articles concerning the FSF, Richard Stallman, Hurd, or announcements from them concerning their specific offerings.

The intention behind the "Linux" category was for a catch-all category. We need -something- in the category field and when nothing else is caught, it just selects Linux.

I've been using "Community" as the catch-all. Sometimes an article will be about some company open sourcing their software, but it's not distribution-specific, GNU-specific, nor even Linux-specific, yet it may concern many readers. This is also based on your "About" page:

"Our top quality editors create, edit, and present information about GNU/Linux and free/open source software via our frequently-updated newswire."

(Heh, top quality. How'd I get in here?)

Community is a good catch-all, to be sure.


I've had an email conversation with RMS, trying to convince him that LXer is a good place for him to post an article, and one of the things he expressed concern about was the use of "Linux" when talking about the OS and not just the kernel. I'm inclined to agree with him, though not as fervently, because without GNU and his foresight with the GPL 'way back when, we would only have BSD as a free Unix.

In that case, maybe the "Linux" category needs to be removed altogether. We already have the "Kernel" category...

I'm familiar with RMS' arguments and I've talked to him in person countless times on the subject.

I'm willing to go along with the GNU/Linux nomenclature, but I would also insist on honoring other groups at the same time. So, GNU/Linux as a name is insufficient. It should at least also be GNU/X.org/BSD/Linux but there are other groups that would still be left out, who are also worthy of recognition. Where does the madness stop?

C'mon, now. You know it's trivial to set up a system without X. You can leave out just about everything except Linux and the GNU utils and libs and have a perfectly functioning operating system. You can also make a minimal operating system using GNU plus a BSD kernel or even OpenSolaris (which is really weird -- GNU's Not Unix + UNIX = huh?). You can't make a general purpose X.org/Linux or Apache/Linux operating system. You can add either of those to a GNU+BSD or GNU+Hurd (masochists do exist) operating system.

Red Hat is free to call their system Red Hat Linux and Debian is free to call theirs Debian GNU/Linux, certainly, but, if the bare bones foundation requires both GNU and Linux to function, it's not madness to credit both. You and I can use either term interchangeably and figure out whether it's the kernel or the OS being discussed.

Keep in mind that SCOG likes to confuse the masses with name games. Sprinkling the term GNU/Linux or GNU+Linux on FOSS-centric websites helps educate newbies. The strength of the GPL is what has stopped SCOG cold as well as turned IBM into a Linux zealot. Each time a newbie asks why we use GNU/Linux and Linux when we mean the same thing, it's an opportunity to educate another person about why protecting the user is important.

I spent a great deal of time at Groklaw before showing up here. You can't overstate the significance of GNU, the GPL and the FSF. It is the combination with Linux that changed the world, but without RMS's foresight, there would simply not be a Linux.

[Ed.: It would be extremely hard for anyone to read the collection of documents, research and court transcripts at Groklaw and not be impressed with the strengths of the GPL.]

You make excellent points, in a concise way that hasn't yet been done successfully in the public eye.

The Messenger v. The Message

Now, in my earlier email I gave some reasons for my hesitance to use the term, and you have successfully addressed each of them.

There was one more significant reason that I left out, thinking it wouldn't be necessary but I am now compelled to put it forth:

RMS is the last issue that keeps me from wanting to use the term GNU/Linux.

RMS ... have you ever met him in real life? Have you ever watched him destroy youth's passion for free software? It's heartbreaking to remember how cruel and uncaring he can be with his harsh words.

I spent time working with the FSF (in person) in order to get them to fix RMS' image, and they had some success (they even got him nice clothes and a haircut!) but not enough yet that I can see.

His contribution to free software was incalculably valuable to the cause; I just wish it had been someone else.

I just don't want to join him on his bandwagon. :( Just some thoughts...

I've never met Stallman in person.

Actually, you're not the first FOSS VIP to tell me these things about RMS and his image. I had a real knock down, drag out email battle with someone whose identity I'm not at liberty to reveal, over whether RMS's ATI protest should be publicized. The story ran on LXer. The argument then deteriorated into one about whether LXer was turning evil. (That actually convinced me that LXer must be having a good effect, as no one would try to get that FOSS advocate to doubt LXer if it was insignificant).

I suspect it's RMS's Asperger Syndrome that gets in the way of social interaction. Reference: Chapter 3: A Portrait of the Hacker as a Young Man [Free as in Freedom Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software By Sam Williams]

Some thoughts...

As a child, I was diagnosed as borderline; my personality creates additional difficulty for my interaction with other people, but I also see it as a huge asset and wouldn't have it any other way.

It helped that I married a woman exactly like me, although that creates new sets of problems for ourselves... :)

I'm really glad my wife is not a grump like me! Her 27 years of teaching elementary school attest to her ability to tolerate rude and outlandish behavior. (BTW, she's become a picture-posting monster on Dave's Garden since I made an html step-by-step guide for her home page).

With borderline, autistism, schizophrenia, etc, it takes extra work to see that other people have intrisic value and that you are not the only person on earth. RMS seems to have yet to learn this fact. Maybe he's incapable of it, having perhaps a more severe case than I and many others have, but I doubt it.

I can appreciate Van Gogh's paintings. His vices and personal problems don't detract from that appreciation.

Excellent point! I'll be digesting that some more.

GNU is Stallman's masterpiece. The simplicity and power appeals to the geek and the wanna-be engineer in me. Events have proven his early insistence on vetting all code accepted by GNU to be extremely valuable. There are no SCOG-like predators going after GNU. Only patents and patent trolls stand a chance at attacking it. The power of the GPL, as shown by its ability to attract corporations like IBM and even Sony, has produced some protection even in the area of software patents.

Note that the BSDs never got such support, because corporations are users, too, and the BSD license does not protect users. This is Stallman's genius -- that protection of the computer user, with those 4 simple freedoms, effectively removes so much power from those who consider computer users and developers as simply revenue generation units to be exploited.

Closing Remarks

As you can see, this was not an exhaustive, research-laden, scholarly debate. There is no absolute, undeniable, single correct answer to the question of what to call an operating system which is based upon the GNU system and the Linux kernel. The freedom that is guaranteed by free software licenses, as defined by GNU, must include the freedom to name the system as the user sees fit.

However, in my opinion, it is a disservice, disrespectful and discourteous to avoid giving credit to all the people who worked all those years before Mr. Torvalds provided the last major piece of the puzzle for a complete, free, Unix-like operating system. It is not an undue burden on those of us who know the history and enjoy the benefits of truly free software, particularly software provided under the user-protective shield of the GPL, to inform those who have been under-informed by the popular press about that history and the GNU philosophy.

My work on free software is motivated by an idealistic goal: spreading freedom and cooperation. I want to encourage free software to spread, replacing proprietary software that forbids cooperation, and thus make our society better.
-- Richard Stallman, Copyleft: Pragmatic Idealism

Sprinkling "GNU/Linux" or "GNU+Linux" around is not hard work, yet this simple act points out to others that you recognize that idealistic goal of "spreading freedom and cooperation" and agree that it is worthwhile. Rather than confusing, you provide an opportunity to educate a "newbie" about why the freedom in free software matters.

» Read more about: Story Type: LXer Features; Groups: Community, GNU, Linux

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