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28 August, 2005
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Underneath all the things that Linux is, it is an operating system kernel.

The Many Faces of Linux

GNU is not just a label for a brand of software. GNU is an operating system. (GNU programs are contributions to the GNU operating system.) And the GNU/Linux system is pretty much the same as the GNU system--only the kernel is different.
Richard M. Stallman (rms)

Mike Angelo -- 28 August 2005 (C) -- Page 2

Article Index

GNU Note:

The controversy surrounding the relationship of the GNU OS components and the Linux kernel in Linux-based OS distributions is beyond the scope of today's article. It's a rather lengthy and complicated story of its own.

However, during our discussions about the issues that are the focus of this story with Richard Stallman, he made some comments that make the GNU part of what Richard calls the GNU/Linux OS the dominant part of the GNU/Linux OS. In today's article, we approach the issues taking the kernel, the Linux kernel, as the primary or dominant component of a Linux-based, GNU, OS.

That is different from Richard's position. Here is the way Richard states his position:

Richard M. Stallman: GNU is not just a label for a brand of software. GNU is an operating system. (GNU programs are contributions to the GNU operating system.) And the GNU/Linux system is pretty much the same as the GNU system--only the kernel is different.

There are links in the Resources section at the end of this article on page 3 to Web pages that more thoroughly present the position of Richard Stallman and the FSF about this controversy.

We believe that the term suggested in this article, Linux-based, GNU, operating system, adequately and fairly identifies the product and both the GNU and Linux components of the OS. Nevertheless, as Jon "maddog" Hall points out further on in this article, . . . people like to use the name they like to use, whether it is correct or not. "Linux" rolls off the tongue. It is cute . . .

Thus as a practical matter, most people are going to call the Linux-based, GNU, operating system, simply Linux.

Caldera Note:

Please do not let the reference to Caldera here get you going. In 1994 Caldera was a darn good member of the Linux community. The old Caldera did much to help pioneer the GUI (graphical) desktop for the Linux-based GNU OS. It also did much to provide an easy-to-use graphical installer for the Linux-based GNU OS.

It was only later when Caldera and SCO became the same outfit and Darl McBride took over as SCO boss that SCO/Caldera hit the skids and made war on the Linux community. For more about this please see our SCO IP, SCO v Linux, & Caldera v IBM series of articles.

Using Linux and Linux-Based to Name Things

So, maybe it is about time for everyone to start being lots more careful about how we use the term Linux. That would make it clear when one is referring to:

  • the Linux kernel,
  • the GNU/Linux operating system,
  • any other Linux-based operating system,
  • a Linux-based desktop,
  • a Linux-based distribution,
  • or whatever.

Here is some food for thought about that. How about the term Linux, when used by itself, be used to refer to the Linux kernel? That's the operating system kernel developed and maintained by Linus Torvalds and the kernel.org people.

That's not a new idea. It's just that over time most, if not all, of us have gotten very sloppy about the way we label lots more than just the Linux kernel as Linux.

When the term Linux is used in conjunction with Linux-based OSs, Linux-based distributions, or whatever, then they should be called Linux-based. For example the Linux-based GNU operating system would be called more or less what Richard Stallman and the FSF people have been saying all along, the Linux-based, GNU operating system.

Richard Stallman is the founder of the GNU Project, President of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), and a well-known author. We discussed this article during its preparation with Richard M. Stallman (rms). He noted in respect to the above paragraph that the name should include more than just Linux-based.

That seems to mean that GNU should be part of the name when one refers to an item that includes or is built on top of the Linux kernel and the GNU operating system based upon the Linux kernel.

Richard M. Stallman: Distinguishing "Linux-based" from "Linux" would be a step forward in clarity, but using that as the only term used to describe what a system or distribution is would still be misleading . . .

Please see the GNU Note in the right sidebar for more about this.

Incidentally, there also is another GNU operating system that is not based on the Linux kernel. It's based on GNU's Hurd kernel and called the GNU/Hurd operating system.

The same idea for naming operating systems goes for naming Linux-based distributions, too. Perhaps they could have names such as SUSE OS, a Linux-based GNU operating system, or The Mandriva Linux-based GNU OS. Those of course would be the more formal names.

In short, they still would simply be called Mandriva or SUSE, or perhaps Mandriva OS and SUSE OS -- but not merely Mandriva Linux or SUSE Linux. Likewise, perhaps Fedora and Red Hat ought to be referred to as Fedora OS and Red Hat OS rather than Fedora Linux and Red Hat Linux.

Some variations here perhaps could be product names such as SUSE Professional Desktop or SUSE Enterprise OS, a Linux-based GNU operating system. How about Mandriva Desktop OS or Mandriva Enterprise OS?

Interestingly, Xandros already does this sort of thing. Its consumer Linux-based distribution is called the Xandros Desktop OS. The business version is called Xandros Business Desktop OS

One thing this sort of naming schema could do is to remove Linux trademark issues from the naming and branding of many Linux-based products.

Linux-Based Product Branding and Identity

This naming thing is more than an exercise in nomenclature and taxonomy. For several months now, we have been comparing and reviewing five important Linux-based GNU operating system distributions, Fedora, Mandriva, Novell, SUSE, and Xandros. So far, we have published two articles based on these comparisons and reviews. And if you have read those two articles, you have seen there are lots of differences among the discussed Linux-based OS distributions.

(In Pursuit of Good Desktop Linux: Part 1, Network Neighborhood and MS Windows Partitions, and Part 2, Ease of Use and Ease of Migration Overview -- KDE, GNOME, and MS Windows Desktops)

All these Linux-based distributions have their own personalities. Simply calling these different Linux-based products Debian Linux, Fedora Linux, Mandriva Linux, Novell Linux, SUSE Linux, and so forth does not do justice to the individual characteristics and personalities of each of these Linux-based products. To the uninitiated, they sound too much like the same product with merely a different brand label on them

Interestingly, this is not all that new an idea. The original Caldera (now SCO) Linux product that was introduced in 1994 was Caldera Network Desktop -- not Caldera Linux or Caldera OpenLinux. In its Network Desktop product, Caldera had built a multi-user, network-ready, desktop, GNU-based operating system built around the Linux kernel. And that is just what the Caldera people called it ten years ago, Caldera Network Desktop. Please see the Caldera Note in the right sidebar.

Of course it is up to the distributors of Linux-based products to select and to promote the names for their products. And hopefully they will do that using the guidelines suggested here. However, in the meantime we will start using the guidelines suggested here as much as we can when referring to Linux-based products.


  • See People Call It Linux -- Jon "maddog" Hall weighs in on Page 3 ----->
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