What’s in a Name?

by Ostatic Staff - Mar. 31, 2013

Katherine Noyes over on the Linux Advocates site has resurrected the GNU/Linux vs Linux naming debate, once again. To the uninitiated, the debate centers around if we should refer to the operating system as “GNU-slash-Linux” or simply as “Linux”, with the Free Software Foundation claiming that referring to the operating system merely as Linux gives undue credit to the kernel, without proper attribution to the GNU tools that make up the majority of the OS. Personally, I find the debate to be a waste of time. It is unlikely that anyone outside of a very small group of dedicated loyalists will care about the distinction. However, it does bring up a more interesting point, what about going a layer higher? What happens when distributions stop referring to themselves as Linux derivatives, come to market only under their name?

For example, Ubuntu’s home page at www.ubuntu.com has no mention of the word “Linux” at all. In fact, they only refer to Ubuntu as a “free operating system”:

Ubuntu is the world’s favourite free operating system, with more than 20 million people preferring it to commercial alternatives.

Following the “Ubuntu” link in the navigation bar at the top of the page brings us to a page where we are asked to “Meet Ubuntu”. Again, no mention of the word Linux on this page either. Under the title of “What is an operating system?” the site says:

An operating system is what makes your computer work, running all your programs and managing your hardware. Other examples include Microsoft Windows, and Mac OS X.

Interesting to note that up to this point Ubuntu has mentioned both Windows and OS X, but still no mention of Linux. I needed to follow two more links to find mention of Linux, buried under “The Ubuntu story”. Clearly, from the marketing presented Ubuntu wishes to distance themselves from the Linux name. No mention of GNU.

Mageia is another distribution that does not have the word Linux on the home page, instead noting that Mageia is a:

stable, secure operating system for desktop and server

However, directly under the “About us” link:

Mageia is a GNU/Linux-based, Free Software operating system.

There’s that GNU. Fedora mentions Linux on their home page under the “We Share” subsection:

Many features that benefit all Linux distributions start in Fedora.

Interesting wording, but it seems like both Mageia and Fedora could, if they so choose, distance themselves from the Linux name.

And what of the most popular Linux operating system, Android? There is no mention of Linux at all on www.android.com, and the name is only mentioned once on the “About Android” page of the developer site:

Building on the contributions of the open-source Linux community and more than 300 hardware, software, and carrier partners, Android has rapidly become the fastest-growing mobile OS.

Not an admission that Android is a Linux operating system, but a thanks to the Linux community for their contributions. Digging through the developer site I find surprisingly few references to Android’s Linux heritage. I even went back to Wikipedia to make sure that, no, I’m not crazy, Android is a Linux-based operating system.

The point is that the terminology of using “Linux” to describe an operating system is fast going out of vogue, and that GNU/Linux is so obscure as to be almost unrecognizable. The millions of people who are buying Android devices have no idea that they are running Linux at the core, and there may soon come a day when Ubuntu is separated from it’s Linux parentage as well. When that happens, will developers start writing “Ubuntu apps”, rather than Linux programs? Will there be a fork between Fedora, Ubuntu, and Mageia?

Could it be that to finally end the fragmentation of the Linux desktop operating system, we need to leave behind bickering over low-level names and rally under a higher level of abstraction?