Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

“Linux” vs “GNU/Linux”

with 5 comments

A sometime claim is that “Linux” is an inappropriate term (when not referring specifically to the kernel) and that “GNU/Linux” would be better—especially by Richard Stallman, who is the founder and main force behind GNU…

However, this view is at best outdated*—at worst, it is an attempt to ride on the coat-tails of a better-known-among-the-broad-masses project. Most likely, however, it is a sign that Stallman is too fixated on his own vision of “GNU/HURD”**, and is unable to see that there are other perspectives on the world: Since his focus is on GNU, those who use Linux instead of HURD obviously appear to use “GNU/Linux” instead of “GNU/HURD”. This, however, has very little relevance for the typical Linux user:

*GNU used to be a much bigger deal than it is today, for reasons both of changing user demographics/behaviors/wants and of an increased set of alternative implementations and tools. Certainly, Linux (in any sense) would have had a much tougher time getting of the ground without GNU.

**HURD was conceived as the kernel-complement to GNU roughly three decades ago—and has yet to become a serious alternative to e.g. Linux.

The general criticism that Linux is just the kernel and that the user experience is dominated by user programs (and other non-kernel software, e.g. a desktop) is quite correct. (This can be seen wonderfully by comparing an ordinary Linux computer and an Android smart-phone: They have very little in common in terms of user experience, but both use a Linux kernel. Conversely, Debian has made releases that use a non-Linux kernel.) However, in today’s world, most Linux users simply do not use many GNU programs, they have correspondingly little effect on the user experience, and a functioning Linux system entirely without them* is conceivable.

*The main problem being “hidden” dependencies. For instance, most Linux computers use GRUB for booting and GRUB is a GNU tool. However, none of these hidden dependencies are beyond replacement.

For instance, a typical Linux user might use Firefox or Chrome (both non-Gnu), LibreOffice (non-Gnu), a few media applications (typically non-Gnu), … Even most parts of the OS in an extended sense will typically not be GNU-programs, e.g. the X-server, the window manager, the log-in manager, the network manager, a desktop environment, … The best way to approximate the user experience would likely be to speak of e.g. “distribution/desktop” , e.g. “Debian/KDE”*, especially seeing that most desktop environments insist on providing their own, entirely redundant tools, for tasks that more generic tools already do a lot better, including text editors, music players, image viewers, …

*KDE is a user hostile disaster that I strongly recommend against, but it is likely still the most well-know desktop environment. Generally, not everyone uses any desktop, but most do.

Even those, like yours truly, who actually do use a lot of GNU programs are not necessarily bound to GNU: Most important GNU tools are re-implementations of older tools and there are alternate implementations available even in the open- and free-source worlds. Are the GNU variations of e.g. “ls”, “mv”, “awk”, better than the others? Possibly. Would it kill someone to switch? No. Even a switch from Bash to Ksh or Zsh would not even be close to the end of the world. Admittedly, there might be some tools that are so significantly better in the GNU-version that users would be very troubled to switch (gcc?) or are not drop-in replacements (e.g. gnumeric). These, however, typically are either developer tools or have a small user basis for other reasons. Most modern users will not actively use a compiler—or will not need the extras of gcc for their trivial experiments. Most users will opt for a component of an office suite (e.g. LibreOffice) over gnumeric. Etc.

For that matter, even on the command line, my two most extensively used programs (vim, mplayer) are not from GNU either…

Yes, using “Linux” is misleading (but generally understood correctly from context); no, using “GNU/Linux” is not an improvement. On the contrary, “GNU/Linux” is more misleading, shows a great deal of ignorance, and should be avoided in almost all cases*.

*An obvious exception would be a situation where GNU is the core topic and a contrast between GNU-with-the-one-kernel and GNU-with-the-other-kernel is needed.

GNU still plays a very valuable role through providing free-software alternatives for many purposes. This role, however, is not of a type that it justifies “GNU/Linux”.

As an aside, Stallman’s own arguments focus unduly on the free-software aspect: Most of his text seems to argue that GNU is valuable through being more keen of free software than Linux—something which is entirely irrelevant to the question of naming. (In general, Stallman appears to see free software as a quasi-religious concern, trumping everything else in any context.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

April 14, 2018 at 4:33 am

5 Responses

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  1. it really doesnt matter what you call it, michael. it does however, matter what other people call it.

    first, stallman doesnt care about hurd that much. you assume he is fixated on it, then you put it forth as if its so. but what he says about hurd today is: “if Linux were already available, and we were considering whether to start writing another kernel—we would not do it.” hurd was just their best kernel, when they didnt have one yet.

    its just as pointless as you think it is, trying to get people who dont care about gnu to call it “gnu/linux.” you think gnu is outdated, “riding on coattails” as you put it, but open source has said that for decades now. go ahead and put a “linux” os together without gnu–

    not so fast, i didnt say without bash. i said without gnu. no gnu gpl, no gcc, no glibc. you go right ahead, since gnu is irrelevant now. remove it, and find out what you get.

    what you would get is bsd. now unlike a lot of gnu/linux fans, im not a bsd-basher. ive got respect for bsd as a “real” unix system. you would not get linux, however– not android, not openwrt, sorry– none of that would likely exist without gnu then or today.

    so, should you respect gnu and call it by its real name?

    i didnt say that. what i said is that its not outdated. the wonderful thing about calling it “gnu” is that only people who care about my freedom go to the extra trouble of calling it that– of respecting its roots.

    i dont *personally* want you to do call it that, unless you really mean it. id rather know you were going to sell me out as a software user, the minute you consider it “practical” to do so. cheers.

    codeinfig

    April 15, 2018 at 6:27 am

    • Thank you for your comment. I suspect, however, that you have misread me and/or misunderstod the issues:

      > first, stallman doesnt care about hurd that much. you assume he is fixated on it, then you put it forth as if its so. but what he says about hurd today is: "if Linux were already available, and we were
      > considering whether to start writing another kernel—we would not do it." hurd was just their best kernel, when they didnt have one yet.

      No: The key phrase is “Since his focus is on GNU”, with corresponding implications for his perspective. (Do we have a dish of GNU with a side of Linux or a side of HURD? Most others, however, have a very different perspective, including extremes like “Do we have a dish of browser and word processing with a side of Ubuntu, MacOs, or Windows?”.) With hindsight, the preceding phrasing “fixated on his own vision of” was unfortunate, because it could (obviously) be misunderstood to over-emphasize HURD; however, whether the emphasis is on GNU alone or GNU and HURD in combination matters little for the overall argument.

      > its just as pointless as you think it is, trying to get people who dont care about gnu to call it "gnu/linux."

      To the best of my knowledge, no-one, Stallman included, has suggested that we refer to GNU (!) as GNU/Linux. The question is rather whether a Linux (sensu lato) system should be referred to as GNU/Linux. GNU is Not Unix—and GNU is Not Linux either.

      > you think gnu is outdated

      Not at all: A world-view in which GNU is so important that it would warrant top-billing in the context of a Linux system is outdated—not GNU it self. (I use GNU programs on a daily basis.)

      > source has said that for decades now. go ahead and put a "linux" os together without gnu–
      >
      > not so fast, i didnt say without bash. i said without gnu. no gnu gpl, no gcc, no glibc. you go right ahead, since gnu is irrelevant now. remove it, and find out what you get.

      I have never said that GNU is irrelevant, nor that it SHOULD be removed. I am saying that building e.g. a Debian system without GNU is conceivable. (Not necessarily easy, but there are other parties that provide similarly or more important software on a given system, especially one using one of the more intrusive desktops.)

      GNU GPL, however, is irrelevant for the functioning, it would be easy to replicate something similar, there are other available licenses. Notably, such other licenses, e.g. something in the Apache or BSD families, are often preferred by people outside GNU, because these parties have other priorities than free software.

      GCC is mostly important for building the system, not for using it. (Cf. my post and note the presence of e.g. CC.) To boot, this importance goes back to long use of an excellent tool. In the absense of that tool, other tools would have been used. In fact, even now, many build setups contain explicit checks for the presence of GCC and automatically fallback to CC, should GCC be absent.

      glibc is possibly the most deeply ingrained dependency (and a better example than my original GRUB); however, this is still just one library. Here too we have the situation that glibc is not used because it is the only alternative, just the best. As with GCC, its absense would simply have led to something else being used. Even now, keeping the interface intact and replacing the implementation with a non-GNU variation would be technically feasible. (As opposed to re-writing every single program that uses glibc.)

      (Note that arguments that speak against referring to a system by the name of its kernel also speak against using the names of individual libraries, build-tools, and whatnots.)

      > what you would get is bsd. now unlike a lot of gnu/linux fans, im not a bsd-basher. ive got respect for bsd as a "real" unix system. you would not get linux, however– not android, not openwrt,
      > sorry– none of that would likely exist without gnu then or today.

      I grant that Linux would conceivably not exist today without the presence of GNU in the past (As I wrote: “Certainly, Linux (in any sense) would have had a much tougher time getting of the ground without GNU.”) However, none of the two main sense of “Linux” requires GNU to be Linux. If we speak of the kernel (the sensu stricto), GNU (and X, and KDE, and Firefox) is entirely irrelevant; if we speak of the system
      as a whole (the sensu lato), I refer to my post for a discussion why GNU is no longer important enough to define the system.

      > so, should you respect gnu and call it by its real name?

      I do. Cf. above and your apparent confusion of what GNU is.

      > i didnt say that. what i said is that its not outdated. the wonderful thing about calling it "gnu" is that only people who care about my freedom go to the extra trouble of calling it that– of
      > respecting its roots.
      >
      > i dont *personally* want you to do call it that, unless you really mean it. id rather know you were going to sell me out as a software user, the minute you consider it "practical" to do so. cheers.

      I do consider free software highly beneficial, but free software is not a core priority of Linux and parts of the GPL are not necessary for the everyday freedom of the users. Having open-source programs is more important, as is the by-the-users-for-the-users development mentality*. Further, while there are Linux systems, notably the Ubuntu variations, that can be accused of selling the users out, there are plenty who do not.

      *Which unfortunately has gone down the drain in many of today’s projects, including Firefox.

      michaeleriksson

      April 15, 2018 at 11:35 am

      • considering the length of my reply, i have moved it here: https://almostlibre.wordpress.com/2018/04/15/the-old-whether-to-call-it-gnu-redux/

        if you prefer to continue the debate here where it started, feel free to reply there or here to what ive said. i doubt we will do more than go in circles, so chiding you for a non-reply would be pointless. but if you wanted, i could easily move that entire wall of text back here. only if you actually preferred it here.

        codeinfig

        April 15, 2018 at 4:59 pm

  2. […] it on the poor guys blog seems… that perhaps its better to put it here on this blog. i am heavily quoting someone elses comment to me, though i am more heavily commenting. i welcome suggestions from the author on where to put […]

  3. […] light of a lengthy reply by a user codeinfig to an earlier post on the issue of “Linux” vs. “GNU/Linux”, I revisit this […]


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