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1/5/2010
05:41 PM
David Berlind
David Berlind
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Giving FSF Chief GNU-isance Richard Stallman The Credit GNU Deserves

After carrying-on for many years an on-again, off-again email-only relationship with Free Software Foundation president and founder Richard Stallman (or "Chief GNU-isance" according to the FSF staff), I finally met him today for a face-to-face interview. While the interview was actually for a larger project we're working on here at InformationWeek, we spent a considerable amount of time talking about the issues he wrestles with every day. One of them is GNU and the highly misguided usage of the

After carrying-on for many years an on-again, off-again email-only relationship with Free Software Foundation president and founder Richard Stallman (or "Chief GNU-isance" according to the FSF staff), I finally met him today for a face-to-face interview. While the interview was actually for a larger project we're working on here at InformationWeek, we spent a considerable amount of time talking about the issues he wrestles with every day. One of them is GNU and the highly misguided usage of the term Linux to describe what is really GNU/Linux. Stallman, GNU, and the FSF deserve some credit and we (including distributors such as Red Hat and Novell) should all pay it to them.Part way through the interview, I asked Stallman about something that any journalist who has interviewed him knows about; prior to agreeing to an interview with anyone, he makes the following request (cut and pasted from his email to me):

I'd be glad to do an interview about this, if you promise me that the published story will avoid a couple of frequent errors.

One common error is referring to a free operating system as "Linux". That system overall is GNU; Linux is actually the kernel, one program in the system. Calling the whole system "Linux" means giving the system's principal developer none of the credit. See http://www.gnu.org/gnu/linux-and-gnu.html for more explanation.

I agreed and today, after the interview was over, Stallman expressed his disappointment in the manner in which I approached that very subject:

DB: When you speak to people like me -- other journalists -- one of the things you insist on is that when you refer to Linux, you refer to it as GNU/Linux....

RS: No! No. When you're talking about Linux which is [Linus] Torvald's kernel, you should call it Linux. When you're talking about the system which is more GNU than Linux, you shouldn't give all the credit to a secondary contributor. We deserve to get a share of the credit too. So, when you're talking about the whole system, you should call it GNU/Linux or GNU+Linux.

After the interview's conclusion, Stallman said I was particularly nasty in the way I started to ask my question to which I responded that I understood the issue well, that I have understood it for many years, and that I meant no disrespect. He admonished me to go back to the recording and listen to the way in which I phrased the question. He was right. Stallman chooses his words very carefully. I didn't. If you compare his request in email to the question I started to ask, you can see how my question essentially endorses "Linux" as the accepted name of an operating system that should be called "GNU/Linux." Stallman continued:

Now-a-days, there are thousands of programs in most GNU/Linux distributions of which hundreds are GNU packages. But among the programs you need, they range from very big programs like the C Compiler to very small programs like "RM" which is what you use to delete a file. I think I wrote the original RM in 2 or 3 days... at the beginning, I was doing most of the [software development] but I was also trying to recruit other people to contribute and over the years, more and more people joined in. So, by now, the code I wrote is a small part.

Nevertheless, Stallman makes an important point. Stallman's and the Free Software Foundation's significant contribution to one of the greatest disruptive forces the software industry has ever seen have essentially been dismissed. So much so that the millions of people who currently use or rely (knowingly or unknowingly) on GNU/Linux every day may never understand the critical roles that Stallman, the FSF, and the GNU Project played in bringing those computing experiences to them.

Perhaps more importantly, and germane to the differences between the free software movement and the open source movement (a subject for an entirely separate post), is the role that Stallman's free software philosophy played in bringing user experiences like Google to users of the Internet. Not that Stallman is a fan of Google or any software as a service. He's decidedly not. Though he didn't mention Google by name, any software that's delivered as a service (eg: Google's Search) violates the second of the four core principles of free software (freedoms that Google itself benefits from every time it builds a new Google-branded service). According to Stallman, these freedoms are:

  • Freedom 0: Freedom to run the program as you wish.
  • Freedom 1: Freedom to study the source code and change it so the program does what you wish.
  • Freedom 2: Freedom to help other people. That's the freedom to redistribute exact copies of the program to others when you wish.
  • Freedom 3: Freedom to contribute to the community. That's the freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others when you wish.

Well before open source came along -- starting around 1984 (according to the GNU Project's Web site) -- Stallman, the FSF, and the GNU Project were adhering to these freedoms and without them, there's no telling how far along Linus Torvald's Linux kernel would have gotten or how different the world of computing would be.

So, to Richard Stallman, I apologize for my choice of words as I began to phrase my question. And to those of you reading this post, and to Red Hat, Novell, and the countless other people and companies who have commercially benefited from the FSF's pioneering work in the area of free software, it's time to give credit where credit is due.

When you are referring to the Linux kernel, feel free to call it Linux. But, in deference to the people and organization that gifted you the technologies you now benefit and in many cases profit from, call it GNU/Linux. Call it GNU/Linux when discussing it. Call it GNU/Linux in your product literature. Call it GNU/Linux on the side of your product boxes and on your Web sites. Just call it GNU/Linux. It's the least you can do.

Finally, watch this space where I'll eventually publish a transcript and the associated audio file of the entire interview.

Editor's Note: Richard Stallman responded to this write-up with a note to say that search engines don't qualify as software-as-a-service (in his opinion). Stallman said "there are sites which offer to do your computing on your data, and that's Software as a Service."

David Berlind is the chief content officer of TechWeb and editor-in-chief of TechWeb.com. David likes to write about emerging tech, new and social media, mobile tech, and things that go wrong and welcomes comments, both for and against anything he writes. He can be reached at dberlind@techweb.com and you also can find him on Twitter and other social networks (see the list below). David doesn't own any tech stocks. But, if he did, he'd probably buy some Salesforce.com and Amazon, given his belief in the principles of cloud computing.

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