that old GNU/Linux argument

Alexandre Oliva aoliva at
Sat Jul 19 20:02:32 UTC 2008

On Jul 18, 2008, "Patrick O'Callaghan" <pocallaghan at> wrote:

> On Fri, Jul 18, 2008 at 10:33 PM, Alexandre Oliva <aoliva at> wrote:

>> However common sense kicks in: if you replace or remove any single
>> component of the large collection of programs that together amount to
>> an operating system, this won't make enough of a different to make it
>> a different operating system.  So, GNU-Hurd is still the GNU operating
>> system.

> So Operating System - kernel = Operating System?

Removing non-essential components might very well still leave you with
a complete operating system.  The kernel is hardly non-essential, so
taking it out leaves you with an incomplete operating system.

Putting another kernel in its stead would get you a complete operating
system again.  Not precisely the same operating system, but rather a
combination of the originally complete operating system with the
replacement component.

Incidentally, this is exactly what happened: there was this complete
operating system called GNU.  Its kernel Hurd, still incomplete, was
disregarded, and Linux was used in its stead.  Thus GNU[-Hurd]+Linux,
or GNU+Linux for short.

You can shorten it further to GNU, if you need a single name: just
choose the name of the most significant component, of the largest
contributor, which is common practice.

> (in fact I would characterize the anti-GNU/Linux position being
> exactly that: people use the terminology they find convenient and
> aren't too worried about exactness).

I'm sure people who don't care could fit in this description.

But people who fight violently against GNU/Linux most often have some
other agenda, and find all sorts of excuses to promote only Linux, in
detriment of GNU and of the Free Software movement.

> Replacing the kernel is not remotely on the same level as replacing
> some random program,

Agreed, see above.

> and counting lines of code is no way to assign importance.

Agreed as well, it's not the whole story.

What criterium do you suggest instead?

> For the that matter, replacing (or just removing) X, Gnome and/or KDE woul
> reduce the code count by a huge amount, but there's no doubt in my mind that
> we'd still call the result Linux (or GNU/Linux according to preference).

Agreed, they're not even essential components of the operating system,
although many people would be turned down if distros refrained from
including them.

>> > OTOH (and this is something I haven't raised before), what people in the
>> > great majority *do* say is Linux, not GNU/Linux.

>> Ad populum?  The great majority thinks Windows is part of the
>> computer, but that so many people make this mistake doesn't make it
>> right.

> "The majority" means "the majority of people who *do* know what
> these things are".

I'm afraid this doesn't make it any less of an argumentum ad populum.

That many people make the same mistake doesn't make it any less of a

>> If it weren't for the very man who actually started asking people to
>> give credit to the project he started to give people freedom while
>> using computers to start this project, nothing would have changed
>> either, and we might very well find out we wouldn't have any Free
>> operating system to use.

> I think you're confusing two things. RMS defined Free Software (he didn't
> invent it but he did formalize the idea) and deserves every credit for that.

*and* he first wrote the first several major components of the GNU
operating system, and he'd have written them all if others hadn't
joined him.

> The success of the idea is in part due to people signing up to the
> principle because it appeals to them, and in part because it has
> clear economic advantages.

Economic advantages to everyone, except to the monopolists, which were
precisely the ones who were pushing in the direction that RMS started
opposing.  The very kind of pursuit for more power we're seeing today,
from monopolists such as recording labels and hollywood, pushing
anti-social legislation and technical measures.  Monopolies that bring
great economic harm to everyone around them.

> OTOH pushing a *name* for something a) appeals to far fewer people,
> especially those who have become used to a different name, and b)
> has no economic impact whatsoever.

I believe this argument is a bit short-sighted.  No offense indented,
honest, let me elaborate.

Given that monopolists will try to extend their power through the
means available to them, and if they succeed they will bring back the
very problem we're trying to solve, the way to avoid this is to raise
awareness about the problem, such that people avoid falling in the
traps that the wannabe-monopolists will try to set for them.

Now, failing to promote the term that carries with it the key to
understand the power struggle at hand, and to escape from the chains
put in by those who are trying to impose their power over others,
namely, the idea of freedom, might appear to be no big deal in the
short term.

But in the long term, it will not avoid the establishment of new
powerful monopolies, even if in slightly different fields, say, on key
higher-level applications or on-line applications rather than on
operating systems.  And these new monopolies will bring us the same
kind of *economic* harm that the current monopolies do.

So why don't we all do ourselves and our fellow humans, present and
future, and offer them this vaccine against monopolies: not the
reasoning "this software is better for me, screw everyone else", but
rather "freedom is better for all, screw the unethical power freaks".

Now of course the unethical power freaks and their supporters will
want to push to a back seat the notion of software freedom imbued in
the term GNU, and promote instead the philosophy imbued in the term
Linux, that tolerates and even promotes software that enables
monopolies and control to be established and maintained, even if in
different levels.

Do you see now that this brings us back full circle to the very
problems with monopolies that got the Free Software movement started?
Do you see that this does have economic impact, and that the main
reasons it appeals to fewer people is that this fundamental difference
is misunderstood or not even perceived?  Do you see that promoting GNU
and its philosophy of pursuit for freedom could avoid bringing us back
full circle, but the "laissez-faire" convenience-first philosophy of
Linux will do nothing to that end?

> Add to that the fact that the proposed name is more awkward to say
> and write than the preferred name, and I'd say it's an uphill
> struggle.

I don't see how GNU could be regarded as more awkward than Linux.
Heck, it's even shorter.

As for "preferred name", we all know how many people say "[GNU/]Linux
is too difficult, I prefer Windows", and that's mostly mindset inertia
these days.

Alexandre Oliva
Free Software Evangelist  oliva@{,}
FSFLA Board Member       ¡Sé Libre! =>
Red Hat Compiler Engineer   aoliva@{,}

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