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The StartX Files: Losing the Horizon - page 2

The Queasy Pangs of Trouble

  • May 15, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt

Somewhere along this whole free software vs. open source timeline, Stallman decided that it would be just and proper for Linux (the operating system, not the kernel) to be renamed to GNU/Linux. This is a cause that, like many of his other beliefs, Stallman pursues with a tenacity and determination. This combination tends to, frankly, piss people off. It could easily be said that many of the objections to Stallman's arguments are knee-jerk reactions personality conflicts and nothing more.

But here is what Stallman wants: the chance to have credit for the FSF's GNU operating system, which he firmly believes was completed with the Linux kernel. And with that name change, the ability to promote the real enemy of Microsoft: the GNU Project and the GPL.

That was the topic of the e-mail to me last week, in response to my column last week arguing about providing Microsoft with a rational front. Along the way, I teased the FSF about their tendency to e-mail everyone they can about the importance of free software. I don't apologize for it; everyone could use a gentle tweak on the nose from time to time, because people and organizations that take themselves too seriously are likely to implode under their own weight.

Still, I got what I deserved when Stallman wrote me to point out that Microsoft did not really fear Linux, but rather the GPL. He also asked me personally to begin to use the term GNU/Linux in my work. And that's where the abyss loomed.

I did a lot of soul-searching upon reading this request. Let's face it, I was happily avoiding the issue because no one had put the question to me directly. I may love a good argument, but I don't go out of my way looking for one. But here it was, laid out in black and white.

I did a lot of Internet searching for this one as well, looking for evidence either way. I found some compelling arguments for backing Stallman's request. For instance, Torvalds himself made an interesting statement when he was talking about using GNU's preexisting applications in an August 1997 interview with Glyn Moody of Wired Magazine:

"'I never ported programs,'Linus says. 'I ported the kernel to work with the programs. Linux was never the primary reason for anything--user programs have always been the reason.'"

This statement by itself is a very strong argument for using the term GNU/Linux, for it creates a scenario in which Torvalds really did (albeit unintentionally) fill in the gap for the GNU Project's missing kernel.

But Torvalds has also made it clear in interview after interview that while he recognizes the contributions of Stallman and the FSF, his own political views do not match Stallman's, such as in an interview with Alessandro Rubini for the Linux Gazette:

"I personally don't like mixing politics with technical issues, and I don't always agree with rms on a lot of issues. For rms, there are a lot of almost religious issues when it comes to software, and I'm a lot more pragmatic about a lot of things. As a result, we know we disagree about some things, and we actively don't try to work together too closely because we know it wouldn't work out very well."

Torvalds is trying to remain apolitical in an environment that is more politically driven than some can stand. This would be a nice sentiment, to keep things "just technical" or "just political," but the problem with working with human beings is if you stick more than two people in a room together, politics will always crop up. This issue, in particular, has become such a nightmare that my colleagues were warning me to avoid exploring the topic altogether. It was, they argued, a field of landmines.

So what was my decision? What political landmine was I going to have to trip?

I am going to keep calling the operating system Linux. I could give the argument that I am falling back on common usage, but that will be construed by some as a cop out. Instead, I'll give this reason, from Torvalds himself, when he was asked about his thoughts regarding the GNU/Linux feud in an interview with Hiroo Yamagata:

"rms asked me if I minded the name before starting to use it, and I said 'go ahead.' I didn't think it would explode into the large discussion it resulted in, and I also thought that rms would only use it for the specific release of Linux that the FSF was working on rather than 'every' Linux system," Torvalds said in the interview.

"I never felt that the naming issue was all that important, but I was obviously wrong judging by how many people felt very strongly about it. So these days I just tell people to call it just plain 'Linux' and nothing more," he added.

As a journalist, it would be a bit of a reach for me to start arbitrarily labeling something the author has asserted in public as "Linux." There are standards we must use when identifying things in news and news-opinion pieces. And when we are in doubt, we use the exact wording and spelling of the person who owns or creates the object in question. In this case, for whatever reason, Torvalds has opted not to call his operating system GNU/Linux. So, when referring to the operating system in general terms, I should not call it that either. When the term is used for distributions and products, I will follow what the owners and developers say to call it, whether it's Red Hat Linux or Debian GNU/Linux.

Because names are the one thing in this world that are proprietary. They have to be, for a common focal point of language to fix upon.

But I would caution the critics of the term "GNU/Linux" not to gloat in their apparent victory in this instance. For while my sense of professionalism has bound me to one term, on a personal level, I think the GNU Project has every right to stand up and argue for this point. The origins of GNU and Linux are intertwined more than enough to make a case for the use of the combined term.

And I know this debate will continue, regardless of my personal opinion. I'm sure it will get ugly too, as the trolls sharpen their knives to carve out another piece of someone who stands up for something, and as someone who stands for something continues to unbendingly push for something that is not easy to assert but they feel is right nonetheless. Such is the way of the world.

Just remember not to lose sight of what is really important: that it's not about personalities or egoism, no matter what some might have you believe.

Just remember not to lose the horizon.

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