Thursday, 19 January 2012

A Rose by any other name . . . . .

I spent many years reading about that thing called 'Linux'. When I actually got round to trying that 'Linux' I was shocked - in a nice way - at how wonderful it was. How well it worked! I was amazed. My expectations had not prepared me for that reality. I was happy because I wanted to move away from my traditional Windows although this did take some effort. However, since then, I have never had a wish to go back.

With time, my eyes saw different things. The reason why 'Linux' existed was not just technical excellence, but was a lot to do with the social, political, ethical principles of freedom. Mmm, heavy stuff.

I also became aware of 'GNU/Linux'. And a person called Richard M Stallman.

The time-line was a surprise. Stallman invented the concept of free software in 1983, calling his intended operating system 'GNU' after the animal. Years later, Linus Torvalds invented his Linux kernel, in 1991, and it was used tohelp make the GNU operating system complete.

Stallman had, and still has, a flair for great clarity of principle. 'Free' software means freedoms, and Stallman defined these. However, he is not strong on marketing or diplomatic skills, nor being political, nor even always very tactful. Prophets often rest uneasily into the world, and Stallman is a prophet.

What I had followed over the years was the word 'Linux'. Where did 'GNU/Linux' come in? Any number of usages and public definitions exist which call the complete operating system 'Linux'. Even IBM used this term alone when it marketed its early products as far as I have seen.

Anyway, who cares what the operating system is called? It is not just a matter of semantics, otherwise I would not bother to mention it at all. I could not usually care less what the name is.

Marketing in the free software world is *so* poor that even as an avid user it took me five years to bump into the *real* issue. 'Free' software means freedoms. Torvalds is not such an ethical, political idealist creature as is Stallman. Torvalds takes an altogether more easy going view of licencing.

The free software world got more complicated when Microsoft made its move on Novell, and licensing for free software was tightened up with the introduction of the licence GNU General Public Licence 3 (GPL3). It had been realised that the earlier GPL2 was not strong enough to preserve freedoms in all cases.

However, Torvalds was ok with keeping his kernel, Linux, as GPL2.

There is a lot going on which threatens the 'freedoms' but unfortunately the free software movement is no good at marketing. And having no money does not help much against the powerful well funded opposition.

I have looked carefully at Stallman's views, and I can not fault them. Although I find I can not personally follow them to the letter. That does not make the objectives wrong, just difficult to follow in today's world.

I am a pragmatic GNU Linux user, I use Ubuntu which is free software, but which also contains plenty of very non free stuff.

But I think Stallman has a good point when he says that a system called just 'Linux' risks people thinking that the principles of 'Linux' are the same as those principles of 'Free' software.

Ok, that poses a problem, and Stallman's answer - GNU/Linux - sounds geeky. Why is 'GNU' any more geeky than 'Linux'? Gnu is a real animal, not a made up word with an X in it.

One consequence of the ongoing double use of the word 'Linux' to mean either the kernel or the complete operating system, is that it is easy for the idea of complexity of kernel level skills to be visited onto people's thoughts about the many Linux based complete operating systems, which are incredibly easy to use, even for novices.

When I have asked independent computer shops about - say - Ubuntu? I get the retort that "Linux is not for ordinary users, only geeks".

It is unfortunate that the word 'Linux' is so firmly associated with 'geek', and not with 'ordinary' people. Relating to the many easy to use operating systems the belief is mistaken, but it is easily kept rolling along, with only minimal encouragement from competing business interests.

Whatever the name is, it is worth keeping in mind that the principles and ethics behind the Stallman 'GNU' and the Torvalds 'Linux' have significant differences, with Stallman focussing on Freedom, not pragmatism.

Long live GNU/Linux and all Linux based operating systems.

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