The Naming of the Bovid

Michael Lustfield is crazy. He also wrote a post on his web log in which he, long story short, pretty much claims the GNU project is being a bunch of whiny babies about the whole GNU/Linux / Linux naming convention discussion that’s been going on for a great while now.

I generally share the same opinion as Michael. GNU, in their own documents (as reviewed by Michael), keep saying

  • “We started this thing. We were first. Give us credit.”
  • “GNU is an operating system, just lacking a kernel.”
  • “Most people use a GNU/Linux system which is essentially a GNU system with Linux tacked on.”
  • “We deserve credit because the operating system you use is GNU. (…) Using the Linux kernel.”

I interpret Michael’s opinion to be that “GNU IS NOT an operating system” because they never finished their own kernel, while GNU feels that an operating system is a complete, general system that enables you to do your work with your computer.

It is my belief that it all boils down to one’s definition of “operating system”. I acknowledge several definitions, but one definition is much simpler than the other; it is much easier to just define it as “the kernel”, but if you define it the way GNU defines it you are faced with the difficult problem of where to draw the line. Should a Word Processor count as essential software in the operating system? Media player? GAMES? APPARENTLY according to GNU (again, see Michael’s post and/or GNU’s documents).

This is a problem, so I do actually prefer the OS to be just “the kernel”. This is why I don’t feel bad saying that “I use Linux”, and not that “I use GNU slash Linux”, the latter of which would just sound ridiculous in all honesty.

But even so, if you would take “operating system” to mean what GNU feels an operating system means, you most definitely have to include the kernel, and GNU’s software and the Linux kernel are huge contributions in such an operating system. This is why it would be appropriate to call it GNU/Linux, but then for the same reason, GNU still really isn’t an operating system without Linux, so no, Michael, GNU indeed IS NOT an operating system.

Regarding the quote “with a kernel tacked on” (might be paraphrased), as if the kernel is just a regular piece of software running inside the OS. It’s much more than that—it’s what facilitates all the system resources to all other software in the “operating system”. All this is pretty confusing, but in conclusion, GNU isn’t an operating system by my definition, which is that the operating system is the kernel:

Schematic View of Operating System

Schematic Orientation of Operating System

Interestingly, a Wikipedia article defines the kernel to be, in fact, a part of the operating system, but I don’t think the definition in general is set in stone.

Nonetheless, while the GNU folks do come off as being whiny babies about this, there is truth in that it is important to recognize GNU for the work that they have done and for what they have done and are doing the work, which is a great, great thing. But fussing over the naming of operating systems is definitely not the way to go about doing this. It clearly just causes frustration in the community, and it is dividing it. Luckily I don’t think this fussing is causing a division deep enough to cause any real damage because of shared philosophies, but it is worth being fine with calling it just “Linux”, getting on with your life, and finding another way to promote Free Software.


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