Thursday, March 21, 2013

Linux or GNU/Linux: Is the Distinction Worth Preserving?

by +Katherine Noyes

As a young reporter just starting to cover Linux not so very many years ago, I quickly learned that simply calling it “Linux” is a grave mistake in the eyes of some.

It should be GNU/Linux,” they'd urge. “Linux is just the kernel.”

That distinction was made crystal-clear for me when I had the opportunity to interview none other than Richard Stallman, whose willingness to be interviewed was actually conditional upon LinuxInsider's agreement to use the term “GNU/Linux.” (Image credit:

Linux is just one component of the GNU/Linux system, which is, in turn, just a part of the world of free software,” Stallman told me back then. “You'll have no chance of understanding or explaining anything about the Free World if you don't keep those distinctions straight.”

The Free Software Foundation, of course, provides a very nice explanation of the difference on its site.

Rarely sighted

Fast forward to today, and I still occasionally hear the same argument made. Just the other day, in fact, I was reminded by a reader of the distinction.

Take a quick scan through the Linux media, however – including not just LinuxInsider but also Linux Today, Linux Journal, the Linux Line section at PCWorld, and the site you're reading now, among numerous other publications – and you'll soon get a pretty strong indication that the distinction is rarely upheld.

You won't see it made routinely by the Linux Foundation or on, and Linux creator Linus Torvalds himself has reportedly dismissed it.

My question to you, fellow Linux Advocates, is whether it's really still worth making. Personally, I don't think it is.

More than a mouthful

I realize that there are strong historical and philosophical reasons for separating the Linux kernel from the GNU system.

I also realize that it's technically more accurate to call it GNU/Linux.

What I'm also aware of, however, is that few beyond the inner core of free software enthusiasts still adhere to or understand the distinction; to most mainstream users, it's baffling. The term GNU/Linux is klunky and unwieldy in printed text, and even more so when you're speaking.

Meanwhile, as Linux advocates, we all want to promote Linux, and to advance its use over proprietary counterparts – right? We'd like to see Linux covered as much as possible for all its many successes, making clear to the mainstream world that it is now a fully competitive alternative.

Are those goals worth sacrificing in the interests of a linguistic distinction? I'm thinking not.

Connecting the dots

Please make no mistake: I am nothing if not an advocate for Linux and free software in general.

Personally, however, I'd rather see Linux trumpeted on the pages of PCWorld and other mainstream publications as “Linux” than see stories passed by because of the niggling debate over its name, which tends to make editors groan. Personally, I'd rather be able to have a conversation with an SMB about the advantages of “Linux” than have to bog down my speech with the clumsy “GNU/” as well, thereby potentially confusing them.

Realistically, we're lucky if mainstream users and readers today are familiar with Linux, per se; I generally make sure to add the “Linux” name to headlines involving distros such as Ubuntu and Fedora to help them make that connection.

But to add “GNU/” to the conversation? It's unreasonably idealistic, and just doesn't make sense. If we want to advance the use of Linux in the mainstream world, let's leave the history and the deep-seated philosophy for the background.

It won't get lost, I promise; rather, it will still be fully available for those who care. For all others, it will free up the “Linux” term to help us chip away faster at all the many proprietary monopolies in this computing world.

In closing, I offer you this last bit of evidence. Go to's home page and search on "GNU/Linux." What do you get? It redirects you to "Linux." That, I think, sums up the prevailing sentiment nicely.

-- Katherine Noyes

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  1. I use the term "desktop Linux" when speaking of what some call GNU/Linux. I do this for a few reasons:

    One: It is simply easier to say and more approachable by the general user. This is a benefit when helping people to migrate to "desktop Linux" and having them discuss it with others. As you note, the term GNU/Linux is clumsy and I would add sounds more "technical" and "scary" to people.

    Two: It offers much of the same benefit as the term GNU/Linux in terms of having people realize that Linux is more than just desktop distros. It has lead to discussions about how Linux can and is used in cell phones, TVs, and many other places.

    Three: While not a completely accurate term, given how "desktop Linux" can also be used as a server, etc., it is as accurate or more than "GNU/Linux" - of which distros have a *lot* more than just those two components.

    Four: This is likely the most controversial of my reasons - while I very much respect the GPL and some of Stallman's other work, overall I think he is a *horrible* "face" for desktop Linux. He is, in my view (and from what I can tell Linus Torvalds'), more motivated by hatred of the "other" than pushing of open source itself, he refuses to use language in a common way and thus makes his ideas less accessible to many, he has stated repeatedly that while he is not working on removing freedoms from people it would be his ideal to do by preventing them from using licenses he does not approve of, and he has other views which I find to be absolutely abhorrent and, if followed, I believe would be grossly damaging to society in general and public school students specifically. I am huge supporter of open source but not a fan of Stallman and think using the term "GNU/Linux" puts him in the public eye too much. Even if not for the other reasons I would avoid using the term "GNU/Linux" for this reason alone. I know this is not a popular view among some in the open source world, but it is also one which I have heard others express (as I said, even Torvalds seems to at least largely agree with this).

    Whatever we call it, though, an open source desktop that serves someone well is an excellent thing.

  2. Okay, I've been saying both and find Linux easier to say. I have only so many minutes left in my life and figure if I condense down my verbiage, I'll be able to say more. So, I am sticking with Linux. :/

  3. I'm using GNU/Linux. It is more accurarte, especially in theese days as we also have Android which is quite far from being GNU/Linux. But the most important thing of using GNU/Linux is that it draws attention to the GNU project and the important philosophy of software and digital freedom that is connected with it. Sure I make a mistake sometimes and just use Linux but I at least try to correct myself or think about it. Because I think that the philosophy behind GNU/Linux and free/libre software in general is more important than the specific manifestation of these ideas in specific piece of software. Oh and by the way the most important thing for me from the user perspective when using GNU/Linux is the graphical interfaces and if I would name things according to this I would just say I use KDE Plasma :)

  4. FSF and the GNU project deserve credit for facilitating the development of Linux, FreeBSD, and a host of other Open Source (a term that FSF will disagree with) as well as proprietary programs. On the other hand, referring to the Linux system as GNU/Linux is not more accurate, it's misleading.

    Linux is the kernel, but it is also the name of the entire Linux system, consisting of kernel, libraries, desktop environments, and applications. I'm typing this comment using Firefox, a Mozilla product, not part of GNU. I just wrote a letter using Libre Office, not a GNU program. The window system is KDE, running on X11, neither of which are GNU. There are many GNU programs and libraries, but there are also a host of programs which I use, and which make up the entirety of the Linux environment, which are not GNU programs. Saying that GNU/Linux better describes the Linux system as a whole, is no more correct than claiming that it would be better to describe it as X11/Linux or KDE/Linux.

    FSF claims that Linux is "basically the GNU system, developed by the GNU Project". This takes credit away from the many people who developed Linux, particularly Linus Torvalds, but also the many other developers who contributed to non-GNU projects like Mozilla, X11, KDE, and many more, which make up the Linux system. To a large degree, it is the method which was used to develop the Linux kernel which has resulted in its success and popularity. The Cathedral and the Bazaar was about the differences between open source development in Linux and controlled development in GNU. It is Linux's popularity, and the speed with which the kernel was developed compared with the slow development of the older (and unsuccessful) GNU Hurd kernel, which seems to be the basis for FSF's insistence using the term GNU/Linux.

  5. It's GNU/Linux for me. I agree with Manja here. GNU and FSF and the four freedoms need all the promotion they can get.

  6. There are more compelling reasons for calling the operating system "GNU/Linux" than giving credit. However, giving credit, alone, is enough reason.

    Imagine the Ford motor company builds an car that is missing just one piece -- the carburetor. Toyota happens to have a carberator that will fit, so it installs the carberator into the ford. Wouldn't it be strange to call that car a Toyota and totally forget that Ford built most of it? Couldn't we at very least call it a Ford/Toyota?

  7. I am posting a photo of the revered Nikolaus Otto, the inventor of the 4-cycle internal combustion engine, without which we would not have automobiles.

    This is so important to me, I feel strongly we should always make reference to that and I assert that we now adhere to strictly referring to the Otto/Mobile.

    Not Cars. Not autos. Otto/Mobile. No deviation.

    Thank you.

  8. There's no problem promoting FSF or the GNU project for all that they do.

    The question is whether GNU should be promoted for something which they did not create. There is no question that GNU did not create the Linux kernel, even if GNU tools were used to build it. (I don't call my car a Bosch/BMW, because Bosch parts were used to build it.) There's also no question that the GNU project did not create the Linux system. The credit goes to many people who packaged the Linux kernel with GNU and non-GNU programs and libraries to create a complete and working environment.

  9. Let's take this analogy further. Let's image Otto was in the process of making a complete car. He hires a team of engineers to help him construct everything necessary. He even announces to the world that he will be making a complete car, which he will call the Ottomobile.

    Eight years later, the Ottomobile is nearly complete, but his engineers are having a difficult time making a carburetor according to Otto's theoretical specifications, and the process is taking a long time. Fortunately, Linus Torvalds has a good carburetor that will work with Otto's nearly complete Ottomobile. Torvalds plugs in his carburetor and makes the car complete. Then everyone starts calling it the Linusmobile. If you were Otto, wouldn't you find that infuriating?

  10. The point is, he never made a car. And the majority of everyone doesn't give a wit about it.

    The story is not about not paying respect to GNU. It is more about dialectic conventions which the population dictate--not you or I.

    These trends continue irrespective of how passionately we may feel. It's a distinction that needs to be seen and recognized and the stalwart GNU faithful do not lose strength by others referring to that which 'contains' GNU as 'Linux'.

  11. Actually, the point is not that Otto never made a car. The point is Otto never set out to make a car.

    GNU, however, was, at its inception, a project with the goal of creating a completely liberated operating system that fully respects the user's freedoms.

    The acronym GNU follows the old tradition of giving credit to a predecessor using a recursive acronym that is itself a real word. GNU was created to replace the world's most popular operating system at the time, Unix. So the name GNU pays homage to Unix by including it in its recursive acronym.

    Other examples of this playful tradition:

    EINE (Eine Is Not Emacs)

    ZWEI (Zwei Was Eine Initially)

    LAME (Lame Ain't an MP3 Encoder)

    PINE (Pine Is Nearly Elm)

  12. It's all beside the point. You may feel as strongly as you like, but, people use the word 'car', 'auto' as a matter of short-hand convenience. Thanks for your feedback.

  13. Your argument is basically "only silly crazy people (see the pic) call it GNU, us normal people don't, so neither should you". Pretty weak, but then again you write about "open source", so i'm not sure you're opinion on free software is particularly important.

    Actually most people these days just call their systems ubuntu or debian or fedora - mostly corporate backed brands.

    I often just call it the GNU operating system, as that is what it is.

    The kernel is important but ultimately a side-issue to the main game - Android uses the same kernel but it is far far from being as capable as a GNU system. I'm surprised it's still such a head-liner.

  14. Folks,

    First rule of thumb when making comments is to 'be polite'. If you depart from that, your chance of seeing your comment go quickly to 0%.

    Tip of the day (especially you Notez)!!

  15. Maybe this is a better analogy: Imagine Bo Gnudsen has spent eight years on a research project. He's writing up a paper, and it's nearly complete. The only thing missing is the abstract, but exhaustion and writer's block keeps him from writing a satisfactory one.

    Fortunately, Lee Taraval has read a draft of the paper, and has a very well-written summary that Bo can use as the abstract. Lee plugs in his abstract and is kind enough to submit it to the publisher on Bo's behalf.

    Unfortunately, the publisher makes a mistake and credits Lee as the sole author. Alas, it's already in print without Bo's name. Should we ask the publisher to make a correction, or do we all just shrug our shoulders and let it go?

    Lee made an important contribution, but it's not right that Gnudsen is not credited. At very least, Gnudsen should be credited as a coauthor.

  16. Maybe this is a better analogy: Imagine Bo Gnudsen has spent eight
    years on a research project. He's writing up a paper, and it's nearly
    complete. The only thing missing is the abstract, but exhaustion and
    writer's block keeps him from writing a satisfactory one.

    Lee Taraval has read a draft of the paper, and has a very well-written
    summary that Bo can use as the abstract. Lee plugs in his abstract and
    is kind enough to submit the completed paper to the publisher on Bo's

    Unfortunately, the publisher makes a mistake and credits
    Lee as the sole author. Alas, it's already in print without Bo's name.
    Should we ask the publisher to make a correction, or do we all just
    shrug our shoulders and let it go?

    Lee made an important
    contribution, but it seems wrong that Gnudsen is not credited. At very
    least, Gnudsen should be credited as a coauthor.

  17. I think using GNU/Linux is better. The idea of liberty that free software preserves and protects is so important. And it is very important today when so many corporations (and sadly even governments) are trying to hide this ideas from people and trying so hard to take away as many freedoms we have. All in the name of profit and "security". That's why we have to defend these ideas in any way we can and one smal way is to use GNU/Linux.

  18. I use GNU/Linux if the system in question consists solely of the Linux kernel and GNU userland (and whatever is needed to run said userland). While I realize that the GNU userland is quite important to Linux-based operating systems in many cases, there are much more prevalent and significant application suites in the majority of Linux distributions that most individuals would encounter - namely, the desktop environment (GNOME, KDE, Unity, Xfce, LXDE, etc.). To me, using the term KDE/Linux (for KDE-based distros) would be more accurate than GNU/Linux. Likewise, a number of distros use busybox instead of the GNU utilities; should this be called busybox/Linux?

    Jim Getty put it best:

    "There are lots of people on this bus; I don't hear a clamor of support that GNU is more essential than many of the other components; can't take a wheel away, and end up with a functional vehicle, or an engine, or the seats. I recommend you be happy we have a bus."

  19. GNU promotes freedom. Linux promotes gratuity. Choose your flag.

  20. For those who don't know what an operating system is, and don't care (most computer users) Linux or Firefox or Chrome is a fine name. Whatever makes the general user feel comfortable -- unfortunately they tend to like 'brands'. But for those who understand a little bit about their box, what's the hassle with GNU/Linux? It reminds us that the great software which we use was developed by groups of people working towards a common goal -- rather than the non-existent "lone genius hero inventor" (Gates, Jobs, Torvalds, whoever) which the media tend to prefer.

  21. I don't call it GNU/Linux for the same reason I don't call it Apache/GIMP/BSD/GNOME/KDE/GNU/Linux. The Linux kernel is the kernel, and Linux is the umbrella term for the operating system that is comprised of various components from various people and organization, none better than the other.

  22. You are being way too reasonable. (kidding)
    Seriously, Thanks.

  23. The meaning of words and phrases evolves over time. Now only people genuinely immersed in the software development culture and its history consider the word "hacker" a compliment instead of a label for criminals that write software to commit their crimes. So even though "hacker" should be a good word, it's a waste of time to argue that point any more. Likewise, even if you do believe GNU/Linux is more correct, that ship has sailed. Use "Linux".

    Now, I do happen to think that if the matter was still open for debate in the mainstream, GNU/Linux would be worth considering. Remember, the GNU side of the equation is more than just the C compiler used to make the kernel. Linux developers often - especially in the early days of Linux - used GNU software for their text editor, their shell, their email software to coordinate ideas, their revision control system to coordinate changes, etc...

    To use the analogy of car construction other people mentioned, GNU/Linux is the car. GNU is the wheels, the frame, the suspension, the stability control, the brakes, the seats, the transmission, and the exhaust system. Linux is the engine, and you can't have a car without an engine - but neither can you have a car with just an engine. (But again, I think this is a theoretical debate. The great majority of people who even know what Linux is refer to it as Linux, correcting them to use GNU/Linux is now pedantry.)