What’s in a name? GNU, Linux, or GNU/Linux?

[Part of a series, see also Gnubuntu or Ubuntu? and
Linux, Ubuntu, Linux Ubuntu, or Ubuntu Linux?

I just came across a Slashdot story about an interview with Richard Stallman, Stallman: If you want freedom don’t follow Linus Torvalds. The founder of the Free Software Foundation asks readers whether they will fight for freedom or be too lazy to resist.

Reading this reminded me of a paper title written by Ron Cytron and Jeanne Ferrante: What’s In a Name? -or- The Value of Renaming for Parallelism Detection and Storage Allocation. ICPP 1987: 19-27. Though about program optimization, the title captures an important point.

Names do matter.

For example, suppose you are trying to convince a friend or — as is the case in my volunteer work activities — the IT administration of a middle or high school that they should take Linux for a spin, because it is open-source, doesn’t cost anything, and perhaps they may be able to use it to meet some of their computing needs. If so they may be able to free up some money in their budget.

So here’s a pitch, and how it might go.

Dave: Hi. Thanks for taking the time to talk. I’d like to tell you abour Linux. It’s open-source and comes at little cost. I think may be able to use it to meet some of our computing needs. If so they will then be able to save of the money they have been spending on Windows licensing fees and put it to better use, say to increase teacher’s salaries or provide more professional training for your teachers.

Admin: Good. What’s “open source?”

Dave: “Open source” refers to software that is freely available under a license that has certain terms and conditions. Roughly speaking, you use the code as you see fit, and can even change it as you wish. If you wish to share the code and the changes with others there may be conditions you have to follow, such as making the code available on a web site. It depends on the license. As long as you are just using it in your school and not giving the code to others you should be fine.

Admin: Sounds good. What’s Linux?

Dave: Linux is an implementation of the Unix kernel that is freely available in source form. The project was started over fifteen years by Linus Torvalds, who was then not quite twenty and has worked on the project ever since.

Admin: What’s Unix?

Dave: Unix is an operating system and a way of designing operating system that’s been around for almost forty years. Linux is a fresh implementation of the basic Unix technology. The name “Linux” is based on “Linus” and “Unix.”

Admin: Is Linux that same as “GNU/Linux?”

Dave: Some folks just call it Linux while others insist on calling it GNU/Linx, or even just GNU.

Admin: What’s “GNU” stand for.

Dave: GNU stands for “Gnu’s Not Unix.” It’s a kind of a pun called a “recursive acronym.” Programmers like that sort of thing. It’s also a series of software projects that go back over twenty years.

Admin: Why do they want it to be called “GNU/Linux” and not just “Linux?”

Dave: Linus and his colleagues used some tools produced by the GNU project to help them write the Linux code. Also, Linux is licensed under the GPL License.

Admin: What’s GPL stand for?

Here I must cut the dialog short. Some of this post as originally published has been lost. It’s my fault. I used the WordPress editor to make some small changes, but I have noticed in that past that if you aren’t careful with how you position the mouse then you can wind up cutting out large pieces of text without realizing it. That’s what happened here, and I do wish WordPress had “undo” or “version” support, but it doesn’t yet.

In any event I have reconstructed some of the dialog and may do some more as time permits, but to be honest there are other topics I find more interesting.

The net is that the needless confusion and discussion about “free software” versus “open source”, or “Linux” versus “GNU/Linux” versus “GNU” is a waste of time that is needlessly diverting resources and making it harder to market Linux to a wider audience.

Admin: I’m outta here, Dave. I’ll stick with Microsoft. I know how to say it, and how to abbreviate it: MS. MS stands for Microsoft, not “mess,” which is what you folks are in now trying to market something that doesn’t have an accepted name.

I actually had a conversation very close to this imagined one about ten years ago, back in the Jikes days. I was part of a panel about open source and free software that was held at a day-long event in the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. As it happens, Richard Stallman, the founder of GNU, was also on the panel.

After the panel was over I was approached by a young woman in the audience whom I had noticed since she was taking copious notes. She said she had just emigrated to New York from Ireland and was trying to find a job (or perhaps she had just started in the job, I don’t recall which) with an internet publication and would be writing a piece about the panel, and that she had a number of questions as she had found it hard to follow the entire discussion.

I started out saying, “Open source is a simple thing, but let me provide you some background. Then I tried to explain about “open source,” “free sofware,” the GPL, the Open Source Initiative, source code, and all that good stuff.

We spoke for about half an hour, and then had to end the conversation, going our separate ways.

I never heard from her again.


  1. Posted September 12, 2007 at 12:28 | Permalink | Reply

    You should check out Steve Yegge’s OSCON keynote on Branding (http://dague.net/2007/08/04/oscon-2007-steve-yegge-how-to-ignore-marketing-and-become-irrelevant-in-two-easy-steps/), as I think you’d enjoy it, and it fits into this post quite well.

  2. Satchmo
    Posted September 12, 2007 at 13:33 | Permalink | Reply

    «Admin: How do you say “GNU?” I don’t see many words that start with “GN?”
    Dave: Same as “new.” This has the same sound as that of the “gnu,” an animal.»

    Actually, Stallman pronunces GNU as [gəˈnu] (I’ve heard him in person, and it’s reported here:
    Thus much more similar to “Guh New”.

  3. Shawn
    Posted September 13, 2007 at 16:48 | Permalink | Reply

    It sounds to me like it’s less a problem of the different terms used to describe similar things and more a problem of your inability to stay focused on the relevant issues.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] I presented some thoughts on “Linux” and “GNU/Linux” in a recent post What’s in a name? GNU, Linux, or GNU/Linux?, trying to make the case to use “Linux” in preference to […]

  2. […] 13th, 2007 · No Comments My two prior posts were both about names: What’s in a name? GNU, Linux, or GNU/Linux? and What’s in a Name? Linux, Ubuntu, Linux Ubuntu, or Ubuntu […]

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