Thursday, April 4, 2013

GNU and Linux: It's Not Just About Attribution But Also Philosophy

by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Branding is the key

An increasingly-tiring debate over the naming of the (GNU/)Linux operating system was recently rekindled. It occurred rather virally after several Web sites and longtime authors who habitually cover the subject of (GNU/)Linux had weighed in again, opening an ageing jar of worms.

Like many flamewars in the GNU and Linux world, we should accommodate these, not suppress them. With suppression -- after all -- moral advantages are lost. It is widely understood that no corporation wants to project infighting, but in the Free software world corporations are not central. Likewise, branding is not the top priority.

What the argument over the names often boils down to is philosophy, not just attribution or credit. GNU was created with software freedom in mind. Linux, in its genesis, was proprietary until it adopted the GNU GPL licence and then became mainstream. A former colleague of mine was the first to distribute GNU and Linux -- a practice which over time saw the system's name abbreviated to "Linux". The motive for this abbreviation is an interesting subject which merits its own in-depth research.

Rather than argue about what the system should be called we should pay attention to Katherine's post  and ask ourselves, what is it that should be prioritised? Freedom or popularity? These are not mutually-exclusive and describing the problem as such would be a false dichotomy. But practice suggests that those who insist on calling the system just "Linux" are happy to de-emphasise the values originally incorporated into GNU in 1983.

Richard Stallman famously said, "Freedom is having control of your own life. Power is having control over someone else's life." To a lot of people -- yours truly included -- freedom and justice are the goal, software is part of the means. For those to whom branding wars are of greater interest, the "Mac versus PC" (or Apple-branded PC versus Windows-saddled PC) is right around the corner. Or as I often put it, those who do not like Microsoft go to Apple, whereas those who do not like proprietary software turn to GNU/Linux or BSD.

Distributions of GNU/Linux bring yet more brands into the debate, not to mention all the pertinent components that belong neither to GNU nor Linux. Distributions adopt different philosophies which often reflect the views on their founder, e.g. Mark Shuttleworth in the case of Ubuntu and Patrick Volkerding in the case of Slackware Linux, Inc. The brands we use to refer to software often reveals something about our preferences, philosophy, likings and convictions.

Rather than fight over naming of systems let us reason about the innate values each of these brings. Brands are instruments of association, reputation, kinship, and/or status. We need to go deeper and explore what actual substance each of these has got. And we can choose the brands which suit us best.

- Dr. Roy Schestowitz
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  1. I am not a FUDster, nor am I a hater, but a former colleague chose to level the suggestion that I was, when I (half-heartedly) suggested that we was misusing the GNU designation. He wrote 'Ubuntu GNU/Linux' to which I responded: it's Linux (Ubuntu Linux). Many now out of pure practicality call it just Ubuntu. Our use of language is evolving and dialectic changes are a reflection of social norms, new technologies and paradigms. In fact many again out of pure practicality refer to Linux Distros at large as Linux and you may label that any way you want. Even Wikipedia returns an abstract for Linux when the search term 'gnu/linux' is sent.

    As you wrote, (paraphrasing) it is a distraction and diversion from the larger issues that present for Linux.

    Me: We have much bigger fish to fry. ;)

  2. I think this "former colleague" deserves a voice here. We must accommodate everyone's views no matter how inconvenient they may be to us, as long as there's no threat being made.

  3. I tend to side with Linus Torvalds on this one when he said "There are 'extremists' in the free software world, but that's one major reason why I don't call what I do 'free software' any more. I don't want to be associated with the people for whom it's about exclusion and hatred."

    One can still value the "open" part of open source and not have it be about exclusion and hatred. I feel that is how many of those who push the "Free" term have become. It is not about Freedom - and often those pushing that agenda actually are trying to limit freedom and push to take the choice away from developers to decide how to license their own software (even Stallman has said ideally this is what he would like to see though he makes it clear he is not pushing for that at this time). Based on the quote you have of his, Stallman's ideal is Power, not Freedom.

  4. Not when it gets personal and unprofessional. That is where I draw the line and have done so.

  5. The mayor problem I see when we left "GNU" out of the equation is that newer generations will _incorrectly_ assimilate that it's all just "Linux" and that everything narrows to it - thus, the *utmost* importance to still grant credits to all the people involved in the GNU project and name the whole thing as it is: GNU+Linux.

    Let's not forget that while "Linux" in essence only refers to a 'technically outstanding piece of software' the term "GNU" carries a totally different purport, "to bring freedom to people through free (as in freedom) software". I think is worth the effort to explicitly note the "GNU" part.

    Finally I strongly disagree with Dietrich when he says we should move on and accept this as an evolved form GNU+Linux and, nothing more wrong!

    We should all be conscious about all the good that the GNU movement and the GPL had brought to the software development and other social movements alike and be totally clear about what it represents. One can accept that people foreign to the FLOSS just say "linux", but not the involved people that -one might think- knows what they are talking about.

    Last: "Linux" alone is just about companies, "GNU" is about people, that's why most companies strives so hard to advertise "Linux" and "opensource" instead "GNU+Linux" and "Free Software".

  6. It's worth trying to rebuild the bridge. Power in unity and compromises...

  7. p, li { white-space: pre-wrap; }

    Companies don't like to be overly tied or associated with the FSF because it's less tolerant to some particular practices. I think that this, in part, is why the big press (and others) rebranded the system as "Linux"; then "Open Source" dealt another blow to GNU and Free software. Opportunists found a way to say, "thank you Richard, we'll take it from here."

  8. It's not "Ubuntu Linux." It is just "Ubuntu." I used to even have an article from Shuttleworth saying that. I also had instances of him saying "Ubuntu GNU/Linux" (specifying "Ubuntu" as a type of "GNU/Linux").

    The "but it's the distro name" argument is used by a lot of people who want to call it "Linux", but is false for most distros. There are of course some that do; "SUSE Linux" and "RHEL" are the most high-profile of these, but others are "Linux Mint", "Arch Linux", "DSL", "Puppy Linux", "Yellow Dog Linux", and "Scientific Linux". Beyond that I don't recognize the names, so fairly obscure.

    Of course, some, such as "TinyCore Linux", "iPod Linux" and others actually *don't* include [much?] GNU code, so they shouldn't be called "GNU/Linux" (even by RMS' own admission). DSL and Puppy Linux might also fall into this category, but I'm not sure.

    Distros that don't include "Linux" in the name are "Fedora", "Ubuntu", "CentOS", "OpenWRT", "DD-WRT", "MEPIS", "Vyatta", "Gentoo", "Knoppix", "Slackware", and "Slax". In general Ubuntu derivatives don't either, so any of the official ones, plus Mythbuntu, Edubuntu, Gobuntu, dyne:bolic, and others.

    Then some go the other way and include "GNU/Linux". These include Debian, Trisquel and Parabola.

    I don't think the Wikipedia thing is a good argument. The Wikipedia naming of that article is a matter of controversy, but the user doesn't see that going on behind the scenes because for now "consensus" is for it to be titled "Linux", and so that is what Wikipedia is standardized on.

  9. A while ago I had someone say "Linux" referring to a complete operating system. I explained how the the complete system was called "Ubuntu", and that "Linux" was just one part of it, and that many systems included Linux, and some of them were very different, and some very similar. I explained about How Ubuntu is GNU+Linux+other stuff, and the role Linux plays in the complete system, and how referring to the system as "Linux" is a misnomer. They seemed very appreciative, and genuinely didn't know most of it.

    I don't mind when people refer to a complete system as "Linux", as long as they know that it is a misnomer, and are simply doing it out of habit. I know a guy who even uses Linux to mean UNIX-like (he referred to a FreeBSD box as "Linux"), and knows better. I don't mind so much because he knows he's doing it, and what the truth is.

  10. I feel as though your elaboration of freedom has prioritized the choice (and thus freedom) of the developers over the choice of the users.

    That's exactly why free software was created in the first place, to give users and developers alike the unrestricted freedom to run and adapt the software without express permission. Thus a free software (or copyleft) license to ensure the choice of both users AND developers.

    Preferring and urging others to want users to have the same freedoms as developers is not hatred or exclusion. I see it as inclusion of everyone.

    Dr. Schestowitz hit the nail on the head when he said it's not about credit, it's about philosophy.

    The position of some seems to be that a philosophy that puts end users and developers on the same level is equal to exclusion and hatred of developers. Others believe prioritizing the choice of developers over that of users, organizations, or companies is not in keeping with free software.

    Also, I'm with Luke, I've never had someone tell me "Too Much Information" or "That's too complicated" when I begin a GNU+Linux/Linux Discussion. Most people find it rather interesting.

  11. I use these definitions when I talk to people about Linux in general.

    Linux - The operating system kernel written by Linus.
    Distribution - A collection of software distributed with the Linux kernel. A lot of the software happens to be GNU, but other software is included.

    I don't mind so much that people call what I consider a distribution "Linux". It's like calling all the drinks like Coke, Pepsi and etc, "soda" or "pop". If you think about it. People use the blanket term "Windows" for the different versions of MS's operating system. I think users should be aware of the GNU project and how the Linux community has benefited from it.

    Frankly I don't think we'd have Linux in its current form without it. But I wouldn't go as far as saying GNU Linux. The timing of the GNU project and the Linux kernel was a mutual benefit to both. Linux distros put GNU software in the hands of people that probably wouldn't have seen or had an opportunity use it otherwise. Richard Stallman likes to use a cake analogy when he talks about free software. So basically I think we have Richard's cake here. Now is the GNU project's software the icing or is the Linux kernel? That depends on who you talk to. But without either piece we would not have a cake.

    And if you don't like one particular cake (i.e., Fedora, OpenSUSE, Ubuntu and etc.,) you can try others or even make your own from scratch.

  12. The philosophy of wanting to restrict what people can do with their own code in the name of making things more "Free" is an oxymoron. And the anger and hatred from Stallman and, even more so, many of his followers is clearly an indication that it is more about "exclusion and hatred" than it is about freedom.

    If you need very clear examples of this I suggest looking at the Usenet group COLA and watching what the "advocates" there say. It is *almost completely* about exclusion and hatred. They attack those of us who use and share Linux with other but who do not respect many of Stallman's views (even though I very much respect the GPL and some of his other work). I am deemed the "enemy" because I do not blindly follow his every word and even quote some of his more offensive comments.

    I am not the only one to see this. As I quoted above, Torvalds has come to much the same conclusion. I think most would agree he has a pretty good feel for the open source world.

    As far as the ideas being too complex or whatever, that is not something I claimed. I do think it is important for people to understand that, say, Ubuntu has contributions from many sources.

  13. What if many of us prefer the philosophy of Linus ( to the philosophy of Richard? Like we preferred the philosophy of Linus to the philosophy of Dr. Tanenbaum

    GNU isn't a philosophy, GNU is a system (; though Richard and co did create a philosophy around the GNU system.

    The true GNU system uses HURD and not Linux, as such it is incorrect to imply GNU/Linux as GNU without HURD is not the GNU system but a subset. In this case it may be proper to consider Linux/GNU but that's just as silly.

    As I previously indicated in another comment (with a bit of humor), GNU/Linux is absolutely unfair to all of the other components of the open source platform. The community adopted "Linux", not "GNU/Linux" or "GNU plus Linux" as its moniker, lets stop dwelling on it. Go forth and build! :)

  14. Personaly id hate to see linux as we know it go mainstream , as then all the moneymen would have their claws in, things would never be the same, id be off to BSD faster than a rat up a down pipe.

  15. faster than flies find cow chips even? ;)

  16. nice post & lovely coffee mug :)

  17. >I think most would agree he has a pretty good feel for the open >source world.

    You mean the guy that goes off every few weeks and behaves like a deranged ass and the community just smiles and laughs and moves on?
    I'd say Linus has a great feel for the community. He is the only one who is allowed to speak his mind and get away with it.

    Good choice to take your cues from.
    Of course, Kill Yourself shouldnt be taken as signs of anger and hatred.
    Which is ironic since I can't say Ive ever heard Stallman espouse either ot those two emotions; anger and hatred. (I have to admit Ive never listened him speak more than 15mins at a time.)

  18. "You mean the guy..."

    No, I mean Linus Torvalds. :)

    If you disagree with him I am completely fine with that, but I think it is hard to argue that he is a worse spokesperson for open source than is Stallman. I would much rather have Torvalds associated with desktop Linux than Stallman.

    As far as Torvalds behaving "like a deranged ass", I think he speaks openly and without what we see as normal for corporations who have share holder and the like who would not stand for some non-PC comments, but there are few things he has said I find to be offensive (some I disagree with, but that is not the same thing). I will say his "kill yourself" comment was a bit over-the-top, even for him, but it was clear he did not mean it literally.

    Stallman, on the other hand, promotes things which would be truly harmful to people, especially children, if his ideas were to be followed... things so offensive I do not feel it is right to even quote the comments here. If you would like I can point you to lists of some of his quotes, though, which would turn the stomach of any reasonable person.

  19. I honestly think there's some personal bitterness there. Stallman is the kind of visionary that needed to exist to start a movement like this, but now that there are actual PRACTICAL problems and solutions, all he continues to do is spew rhetoric. If the Gnu Hurd kernel had been complete at the right time, we wouldn't be having this discussion. But it wasn't, Linux was. If he wanted constant attribution and control of all of his software, he probably should have copyrighted it. <-irony

  20. GNU_Prometheus_LeagueApril 14, 2013 at 12:15 AM

    Yes I think that is true, but we have the opportunity to take it back and I think we need to. So its GNU/Linux as far as I'm concerned

  21. GNU_Prometheus_LeagueApril 14, 2013 at 12:18 AM

    Ubuntu is a distro of GNU/Linux. Doesn't matter what kind of spin Shuttleworth applies, that's what it is.

  22. GNU_Prometheus_LeagueApril 14, 2013 at 12:23 AM

    Its not about the trendiness of language and that we just have to give in to the crowd that has missed the point -- we don't have to accept any trend because we can shape language as we wish. Rather its about focusing people's attention on the moral/ethical/political implications of Free v. Proprietary software. And no I don't think we have bigger fish to fry than this, sorry.