I submit that one of the reasons for Debian's lackluster showing is because of its name. In November 1994, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) officially sponsored the Debian Project. And now it's officially known as "Debian GNU/Linux," instead of simply "Debian Linux," in deference to the FSF's GNU Project and its contributions to the Linux operating system. Though the FSF sponsorship of Debian lasted only a year, this particular after-effect lingers on.
One other distribution, Stampede, copied Debian's naming, but without the direct FSF connection its application of the different name is confused and inconsistent. Its home page says "GNU/Linux" but its logo and text says "Stampede Linux."
What's in a name?
The effect of all this is that newcomers who are unfamiliar with the politics might ask, "What's the difference between a Linux system and a GNU/Linux system? Is that like a Red Hat Linux system?"
The answer of course, is no, and that GNU/Linux and Linux, when referring to a full operating system, describe the same general thing. A GNU/Linux system doesn't necessarily contain more GNU components than a Linux system. So then, one must ask, why bother with the distinction? It certainly doesn't make sense to me.
The term "Linux system" is relatively easy to say (once you dispense with whether it's a soft or hard "i"), and most people know immediately what the term means. It's economical with words and has easily become a part of the Linux lingo. On the other hand, those in our world who believe in manipulating language for political means insist on the term GNU/Linux in order to pay forced homage to the FSF and GNU.
GNU leader Richard Stallman, hardly one for compromise, is barely satisfied with Debian's level of homage. He believes there's no such thing as a plain old Linux system. Did you know that what we've been calling Linux systems all this time are just GNU systems, with Linux kernels temporarily killing time until the GNU HURD kernel is ready to take its place?
What's in a Linux system?
What most of the reasonable world calls a Linux system is a collection of mostly free software that includes the Linux kernel, surrounded by myriad tools from a variety of sources. Some parts of a Linux system, including its compiler and base libraries, come from the GNU Project. The X server comes from the XFree86 Project, Perl comes from Larry Wall, the filesystem design from somewhere else, etcetera.
But that hasn't deterred the GNU/Linux crusade. At a press conference at the March LinuxWorld show in San Jose, Stallman told a reporter, "the use of the term 'Linux system' is highly inappropriate," and that he would take it as a personal insult should the term be uttered in his presence.
Stallman and his followers believe that the issue is significant based on the belief that simply calling it Linux denies the FSF of its rightful place in history. An article in Salon magazine expresses Stallman's fears best, but those who need the direct approach can read it in his own words.
Stallman has never missed an opportunity to impose his linguistic philosophies in any forum possible. The latest was in early May and started with a joke posted in the mailing list of the Greater New Hampshire Linux User Group (GNHLUG). GNHLUG member Lee Rothstein wrote a fairly innocent joke about How Linux users "do it".
Stallman's response? "Linux users are people who use the GNU system and don't know it." This comment, and others that followed, have led to a flame war on the GNHLUG mailing list that continues even as I write this.
The worst part of Stallman's ongoing tirade is that it appears to have the opposite effect of the one he desires. His humorless approach, designed to create controversy unless he gets his way completely, has increased the ranks of reactive GNU bashers who would belittle the FSF's role in the evolution of free software. The more Stallman obsesses with the naming issue and less with the code itself, the more adversaries he makes among Linux users. Stallman's greatest single software contribution to Linux -- the gcc compiler -- is now out of his control and in the hands of the once-splintered egcs team.
Some have called him divisive or destructive. Others -- even worse -- would dismiss him as a crank for insisting that he (and the GNU project) be credited in the proper names of all Linux products. The last thing the community needs is to have Stallman's plea for recognition be answered with an equally humorless retort of "what have you done for me lately?"
Looking for solutions
Thankfully, some light is emerging from the heat. It so happens that Linux International (LI) Director Jon "Maddog" Hall is a member of GNHLUG and has been following the above-mentioned e-mail confrontations. He refined an idea by GNHLUG member Matt Herbert into a solution that, to me, deals masterfully with the issue.
The plan is to create a "GNU Inside" logo, that would adorn every Linux package, in much the same way that Apache and Netscape and other logos grace Linux system boxes these days. It could also be used by BSD Unix variants and any other product that comes packaged with GNU software.
"I'm as pleased as I can be with this solution," said Rothstein, whose joke started the whole e-mail mess. "Maddog showed remarkable wisdom in the midst of the chaos."
Indeed. And I hope LI goes ahead with it, even without Stallman's blessing.
Perhaps, maybe one day, we'll be able to look back at all this and have a good laugh. Then again, I suspect some won't, and couldn't if they tried.
Evan Leibovitch has been working with Unix and Linux on PC systems for more than a dozen years. He's a partner in Starnix Inc., a Linux-centric integrator based in Brampton, Ontario. He has been heavily involved in user groups, both as a former director of UniForum Canada and as a current director of the Canadian Linux Users' Exchange. When not around computers, Evan enjoys cooking, writing, and annoying his children.
Questions? Comments? Talk back to us!