Just what is “Linux”?

27 Gen/10

Recently I have had several people call me on mis-stepping the nomenclature surrounding the Linux operating system. But I get this a lot, and from all points of the spectrum: From newbies to power users. The central issue that I have is that this issue causes great confusion with newbies and anger with power users. To that end, I thought I would put forth a few ideas that could solve this issue. It’s confusing, it’s frustrating, and it’s rooted in years of heavy geek war. So read on and chime in. Your input is valuable.

I will preface this by saying I am not associated with any distribution or any developer. I am a technical writer who has covered the Linux operating system since 1998. And although I have interviewed and chatted many of the top-level developers and creators (even Linus himself), I am not in constant contact with them. Now…let’s discuss this “Linux” issue.

Technically speaking…

If you look at the Wikipedia definition of Linux you will find it terms Linux as the “generic term for UNIX-like computer operating systems based on the Linux kernel.” So already we have the purists up in arms. Why is that? The purists speak of “Linux” as nothing more than a kernel. But if Linux is only a kernel, what is an operating system? Again, going back to Wikipedia, the definition of an  operating system is an “…interface between hardware and user which is responsible for the management and coordination of activities and the sharing of the resources of a computer.” No mention of a kernel.

If you look up Microsoft Windows on Wikipedia, you find no mention of a kernel. Why is that? Why, when attempting to define an operating system is there such scare references to the kernel? I suggest this is a matter of simplification used to help the average person to understand the operating system.

Think about it…technically you can break the operating system into many constituent pieces:

  • Kernel
  • HAL
  • Desktop
  • Subsytems

and more. You can also break the human body into pieces:

  • Brain
  • Eyes
  • Skeleton
  • Nerves
  • Heart

and more. And like the operating system, each piece is worthless alone. What exactly can you do with the Linux kernel without the other pieces around it? Not much. There are plenty of desktop environments and window managers available, but none of them will run without X Windows, which will not run without the kernel.

To the purists, Linux is a kernel and nothing more. The hardest-core purists will tell you there are distributions created using the Linux kernel. So, what would the purists call Ubuntu or Fedora or Mandriva? Would you say “Ubuntu: The operating system using the Linux kernel”. No, you say “Ubuntu Linux” or just “Ubuntu”. The name “Ubuntu” implies Linux.

To the new users, Linux is an operating system just like Windows and Mac. And it is my opinion that is the precise way the term should be used. It removes confusion, it makes it more accessible to a broader spectrum of people, and it brings a simplicity to marketing and documentation.

And think about it this way – the human body, without its kernel (the heart) is not longer a human, but a cadaver. Ubuntu (or Mandriva, or Puppy, or SuSE), without its kernel, is nothing but a collection of code that can not be used. The pieces are, effectively, dead.

Pundits and journalists and technical writers are always getting hammered for using the term “Linux” improperly. Although that is technically correct, what most are trying to do is simplify the verbiage to avoid confusion among the masses. And for most it works. Linus Torvalds really only created one piece of the Linux operating system – the kernel. It is the most important piece of the puzzle, but still only one piece. And to say that is the only piece deserving of the term “Linux” is doing all of the other hard work an injustice.

Linux is a whole – not a piece. There is the Linux kernel, the Linux Hardware Abstraction Layer, the Linux desktop environments, the Linux sub-systems, and much more. What do you say? Do you have a take on this “argument”? If so, share your take on it here on Ghacks.

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