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Laurie Langham [opinions]

Linux: has the horse bolted? [fsf] [gnu] [gnu/linux] [gpl] [blogs] [stallman] [torvalds] [fsd]

Richard Stallman wants to popularise the term GNU/Linux instead of using the currently popular term Linux. He correctly states that the term Linux, besides being thoroughly inaccurate, totally fails to introduce new users to the legal and philosophical concepts that underlie the basis of the GNU/Linux OS; but is it feasible to make such a change at this late stage?

Some weeks ago, trolling through prospective articles for Free Software Daily, I encountered a blog, describing the evolution of “Linux”. It was aimed at Newbies. The blog correctly described Linus Torvalds as the creator of the Linux kernel and a few more recent developments, but that was it. No mention was made that Richard Stallman actually created much of what is now called “Linux”, no mention of the GPL, or how it works, no mention of the copyleft legal concept and no mention of other responsibilities placed on users and developers.

All of Richard Stallman's worst fears confirmed in one blog.

This pattern of inaccurate, or missing, information about the basic provenance of the GNU/Linux legal and software environment, is continually repeated in blogs and in the mainstream media.

Stallman's fears are easily confirmed, yet I fear that the “Linux” horse has already bolted.

The Problem

Back at the beginning of the century, when I first saw people using GNU/Linux, they either called the OS, Linux, or else the name of the distribution they were using. A few years later, I started using GNU/Linux myself, but I only knew the OS as "Linux" till I started writing here. For the first couple of years, I knew a bit about Linus Torvalds and something called the Linux kernel, but almost nothing about Richard Stallman. He seemed to have connection with something called GNU, which I thought was just another Linux distribution. I was a typical Microsoft refugee who had learned almost nothing about computers after a decade of using Microsoft.

This is the problem that Stallman is now facing: sheer ignorance on an increasingly massive scale. I say increasingly, because more and more people are hearing about, and using, GNU/Linux, without having any better understanding of it than I did, years ago.

The second stage of the problem involves linguistics and usage.

I only did a year of linguistics, but I'm sure that if Richard Stallman asks linguistics students, at the next university he visits, which of the two terms, GNU/Linux, or just Linux, is most likely to survive, they will say “Linux” with hardly any hesitation.

My understanding is that language always devolves towards simpler forms rather than more complex ones.

Try writing both words and Linux is easier to write than GNU/Linux. Try saying them and Linux just rolls off your tongue, whereas GNU/Linux is much harder to say.

Consider all the publications with Linux in the title. Can we get all those to substitute GNU/Linux for Linux? Can we get Linux World to become GNU/Linux World? We might, but I won't try to hold my breathe while I'm waiting. If we can't, then the term "Linux" is getting forced further into the public thinking pattern.

Can we get mainstream journalists to start using the term GNU/Linux? Almost certainly not! Most of them will feel pretty smart if they are even familiar with the word Linux. They'd insist that the public don't know the term GNU/Linux and it would only confuse them to use it at this stage, which is pretty true. But if we don't, then the term Linux is getting forced further into the public thought processes.

A possible solution

I don't really have one. I often use the words "Free Software Community" which I hope gives the new user the idea that there is a lot more involved than just the word Linux, but it's not a perfect solution by any means.

What's needed is some alternative copyleft-style solutions.

We need to raise public awareness that the term, "Linux", involves a complete package of solutions to most (all?) of their Microsoft woes. The package includes one of a number of possible software solutions, based on the Linux kernel of Linus Torvalds and the GNU software packages developed by Richard Stallman. That it includes its own unique legal protection system, also developed by Richard Stallman. That it also brings a very large international network of users with it, and that it's, mostly, entirely free.

Maybe, the GPL should be modified so it insists that all distributions include a page, prepared by the FSF, to appear on the desktop of all new installations. It would briefly outline all the details of GNU/Linux development and communal aims and responsibilities. Then, not so many new users would remain as ignorant as I was, for so long.

Such a page could link to FSF, and other informative sites, to give a newbie a very quick grounding in the whole Free Software Community environment.

Could this work?


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