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linux or gnu/linuxShort Bytes: The GNU/Linux naming controversy has been there for years. Over the time, the name Linux has been used for the operating systems which have Linux Kernel and GNU Software. But there have been strong opinion clashes on the matter whether the operating systems should be called Linux or GNU/Linux.

One of the biggest controversies in the open source community is related to the naming of the GNU/Linux operating system. A big family of operating systems has been created using the Linux Kernel (released under the GNU GPL) built by Linus Torvalds in 1991 and the GNU Software created by the Richard Stallman-led Free Software Foundation. The dispute is whether such operating system should be referred as GNU/Linux or simply Linux.

In the mid-80s Richard Stallman started the Free Software Movement to propel the development of free software which anyone could use, modify, or distribute. This continued to the creation of the Free Software Foundation which built substructure for the GNU operating system. FSF was able to code all the necessary stuff required for the operating system, now known as the GNU software. They chose to use the X Window System as the display server. One problem that halted further development was the instability of the Hurd kernel developed for the operating system. Torvalds’s Linux Kernel filled the position of the missing piece of the puzzle. Since then, the developers started using the Linux Kernal along with the GNU software and other stuff to create their own Linux distributions.

Recommended: What Is A Linux Distribution? How Are All These Linux Distros Different?

Over the years, the name Linux was informally adopted by the masses to denote such operating systems. Basically, it spread due to the word of mouth and people didn’t think that Linux and GNU were two different things. And that’s where all the controversy started.

GNU/Linux Defence

I’m not asking you to call it “Stallmanix” — Richard Stallman

People who want the operating system to be referred as GNU/Linux argue that GNU was a complete OS in development, whereas, the Linux Kernel was just a filler. Though, it was vital to the existence of GNU in the first place as their own kernel failed to meet their expectations.

“The program in a Unix-like system that allocates machine resources and talks to the hardware is called the “kernel”. GNU is typically used with a kernel called Linux. This combination is the GNU/Linux operating system. GNU/Linux is used by millions, though many call it “Linux” by mistake,” — GNU Project’s website reads.

Richard Stallman has actually created a fat FAQ page just to address this issue. He writes that, although, they didn’t develop the whole operating system, but they did develop most of the components in the motivation of their own vision which sprouted way before Torvalds came into the picture. “In fairness, we ought to get at least equal mention.”

If there was no GNU then Linux Kernel would have had a different future.

Stallman notes that in the 80s, FSF’s single-handedly promoted ideology to develop free software (relate it to “free speech”, not “free beer”) might be the driving force behind the free nature of the Linux Kernel. “Linus Torvalds was partly influenced by a speech about GNU in Finland in 1990,” Stallman writes. “It’s possible that even without this influence he might have written a Unix-like kernel, but it probably would not have been free software.”

Initially, Stallman suggested that the name LiGNUx should be adopted for such operating systems. The name contains both GNU and Linux but sounds weird. That’s the reason he came up with GNU/Linux instead.

Some people say that Richard Stallman is doing all this to fill his ego balloon. But RMS denied any possibility of him trying to get credits for the development of the GNU.

“So, why am I so concerned about this? You know, why do I think it is worth bothering you and perhaps giving you a, perhaps lowering your opinion of me, [Laughter] to raise this issue of credit? Because, you know, some people when I do this, some people think that it’s because I want my ego to be fed, right? Of course, I’m not saying — I’m not asking you to call it “Stallmanix,” right? [Laughter] [Applause]” — he said during his Free Software: Freedom and Cooperation speech in 2001.

Another thought that probably haunts the GNU/Linux promoters, especially Stallman, is that people are using the GNU system (with Linux kernel) without knowing that it is a GNU system. In fact, some of them don’t even know GNU at all. They think Linux is all that powers a Linux distribution. This has created different groups of people who identify themselves as Linux users and GNU users.

Linux Defence

It doesn’t really matter what people call Linux, as long as credit is given where credit is due (on both sides). Personally, I’ll very much continue to call it “Linux” — Linus Torvalds

The people who prefer calling it “Linux” have also made their sincere participation to the unannounced debate. Their opinions revolve around the fact that Richard Stallman (RMS) hasn’t bagged the credits he may have intended for. “Perhaps RMS is frustrated because Linus got the glory for what RMS wanted to do,” – reads the #30 of the Linux Journal published in 1996.

A prominent reason behind the adoption of the name “Linux” is in accordance with the existence of non-GNU stuff (Display Server, Apache HTTP Server, GUI) present in a complete distribution crafted on top the Linux Kernel. “There are lots of people on this bus; I don’t hear a clamor of support that GNU is more essential than many of the other components; can’t take a wheel away, and end up with a functional vehicle, or an engine, or the seats. I recommend you be happy we have a bus,” writes Jim Getty, the founder of X Windows System.

The protectors of name “Linux” say that an operating system built on top of the Linux kernel should be called Linux. And a similar thinking is reflected in a response by Torvalds.

“Well, I think it’s justified, but it’s justified if you actually make a GNU distribution of Linux … the same way that I think that “Red Hat Linux” is fine, or “SuSE Linux” or “Debian Linux”, because if you actually make your own distribution of Linux, you get to name the thing, but calling Linux in general “GNU Linux” I think is just ridiculous,” — in the Revolution OS documentary.

Torvalds hasn’t been on the front foot in the naming controversy. “It doesn’t really matter what people call Linux, as long as credit is given where credit is due (on both sides). Personally, I’ll very much continue to call it “Linux”,” he once wrote in a discussion.

“The GNU people tried calling it GNU/Linux, and that’s ok. It’s certainly no worse a name than “Linux Pro” or “Red Hat Linux” or “Slackware Linux”.”

However, he didn’t like Stallman’s idea of calling it LiGNUx and said it was a punny name. “I think Linux/GNU or GNU/Linux is a bit more “professional” myself, but I’m not going to get gray hairs about this.”

Is there any change?

Until now, there is no formal announcement made about what should such an operating system–which uses Linux Kernel and GNU Software–be called. However, some leading distributions started using the GNU/Linux name. The FSF funded Debian which was an early bird. In 1994, Debian Project started calling its distribution as Debian GNU/Linux. Some other GNU/Linux distros are BLAG, Dynebolic, Parabola, etc. Also, some distros are called as GNU+Linux distros, like Musix. Big names like Red Hat Inc. and Fedora Project prefer to call their operating systems Linux distribution.

It is still unclear, where all this would go. But the thing that needs to be considered is that it is creating a line between two major developments of the software world. If a person adds sugar in a glass of milk, it enhances the taste. The two can’t do so separately. We hope one of them doesn’t get replaced in the future.We would love hear your thoughts on this Linux or GNU/Linux naming controversy. Feel free to share your views in the comments section.

We would love hear your thoughts on this Linux or GNU/Linux naming controversy. Feel free to share your views in the comments section.

Also Read: Building Your Own Linux System From The Ground Up

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Aditya Tiwari
When he is not writing for Fossbytes, he is busy eating his daily cheat meal and finding content to binge watch. Please feel free to suggest him some good stuff on Netflix. Reach out at [email protected]

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