that old GNU/Linux argument

Alexandre Oliva aoliva at
Wed Jul 23 06:47:13 UTC 2008

On Jul 22, 2008, Les Mikesell <lesmikesell at> wrote:

> Alexandre Oliva wrote:

>> You're probably right that Red Hat gave GNU/Linux some polish that
>> even enthusiasts needed, but it started 3 years into Linux's history
>> and 11 years into GNU's history, so I don't think we're talking about
>> the same kind of early.

> Age isn't the point - that old stuff was unusable.  Nothing much came
> out of those 11 GNU years but an editor, a fairly buggy compiler, and
> some lukewarm copies of simple Unix utilities that might have ended up
> with a user base in the hundreds (there wasn't much networking in
> those days if you weren't a university with a defense contract).

And still, RMS earned his living and funding the FSF for several years
selling tapes containing this software you label as unusable, compiled
for several operating systems.

Oddly, I used it back in 1991 and it was quite usable.

So if there's something unusable there, it was Linux itself, or the
still new GNU/Linux combination.  It's not surprising that porting GNU
to a different kernel takes work.  Heck, back around 1992, I faced an
upgrade at the uni from SunOS 4 to Solaris 2, and rebuilding all of
the GNU software on it was a bit of a challenge.  A number of patches
were needed.  I wouldn't surprise a change of kernel to be as big a
deal as a change in userland-visible components of the OS, like the
switch from BSD to SysV in the Solaris upgrade.  But then, the GNU
ports themselves were pretty young, even the object file formats and
the shared libraries were still very active until things settled down
on ELF and, on 1995/96.

But GNU was pretty solid and widely used within the Unix community
much earlier than that, and Cygnus already had solid business around a
relatively small but quite significant part of the GNU operating
system: the toolchain.  Heck, rumor has it that Cygnus almost bought
Red Hat a few years before Red Hat bought Cygnus in 1999.

Guess where the middle letters of Cygnus came from!  Rumor has it that
the other name considered for the company was Wingnut.  See a pattern?

Now, where would GNU be if it weren't for Linux?  Hard to tell.  Linux
took GNU much farther than it had been able to get before, and the
slow development of Hurd is an unfortunate factor in that.

But where would Linux be if it weren't for GNU?  Hard to tell.  It
might have gone the BSD way, and stalled along with BSDs during the
AT&T lawsuit.  Or it could have taken several years rewriting the
userland tools that GNU had written and they adopted early on.

It makes little sense to deny the important of any of the two.  GNU
folks don't try to make it seem like Linux is irrelevant.  The
converse is unfortunately quite true.  That's why you see GNU folks
unhappy about this, and Linux folks who don't care because they were
given the false impression that GNU was and is not relevant, as if all
the merit had been with Linux, or they don't even know what GNU is,
which is a very serious problem for the Free Software movement.

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

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