You keep using that phrase "operating system"...

Balzac's picture
Submitted by Balzac on Fri, 08/08/2008 - 15:26

I do not think it means what you think it means.

This is in reference to the latest interview of Linus Torvalds by presented here: Five Things Linus Torvalds Has Learned About Managing Software Projects

From the article: Linus Torvalds needs no introduction in operating systems or open-source circles. He's the creator, muse and chief developer of the Linux operating system. Torvalds started Linux while he was in college in 1991.

Linus seems to be saying some pretty reasonable things lately, but the people who interview him keep crediting him with creating an "operating system" called "Linux".

The problem with this assertion is that Richard Stallman started the GNU project (which GNU/Linux is based on) while Linus Torvalds was still hanging from his mothers teat.

Ok, that's probably an exaggeration. Richard Stallman initiated the GNU project in 1983.

Initial Announcement of GNU Project in September 27th 1983

Starting this Thanksgiving I am going to write a complete Unix-compatible software system called GNU (for Gnu's Not Unix), and give it away free(1) to everyone who can use it. Contributions of time, money, programs and equipment are greatly needed.

At the time Richard Stallman had initiated the GNU project, Linus Torvalds was only 13 years old according to my calculation. So maybe he wasn't hanging from his mother's teat, but he may have been playing with He-Man and Battle-Cat action figures.

Linus Torvalds started his Linux kernel project in 1991. It is published under the GNU General Public License, compiled with the GNU C compiler, interacts with programs through GNU libc.

This false assertion that Linus Torvalds created an "operating system" called "Linux" needs to be corrected each time it is said or printed. I wish Linus himself would correct the people who make this assertion.

trombonechamp's picture


9 years 1 week 2 days 1 hour ago


That's just horrible

I see articles where people confuse Linux with GNU/Linux all the time, but I have never seen it so strongly stated. Saying "Linus Torvalds needs no introduction in operating systems or open-source circles. He's the creator, muse and chief developer of the Linux operating system." is just like saying "2+2 is one of the most common math equations in the world. Any 6 year old will know that it equals 5." The sad part is, though, that so many people really believe GNU/Linux=Linux. Even if you look at the comments, it is amazing how few people pointed this out to the author. Can you imaging a world where this many people, from accountants to sales clerks to physicists, think 2+2=5?

Balzac's picture


9 years 1 week 1 day 6 hours ago


A great number of the people who call it "Linux" know better.

For some reason, they're comfortable withholding due respect from the organization and the man who initiated the GNU project.

I feel disdain for GNU/Linux users who knowingly ignore the FSF, GNU, and call GPL-licensed software "open source" rather than "free software" as it is described in the GPL preamble.

These people who already know better but choose to ignore the GNU origins of GNU/Linux are more frustrating and annoying than people who prefer to use Microsoft.

I don't worry at all if what I say makes these people uncomfortable.

schestowitz's picture


9 years 1 week 20 hours 7 min ago


Re: "Linus Torvalds needs no introduction in operating systems"

What would Tanenbaum say?

"If Linux's Tux penguin and MINIX's raccoon faced off in a fight to the death, who would win?

Raccoons are quite aggressive. Penguins are not. There would be chicken for dinner."

Attribution is important.

TtfnJohn's picture


9 years 6 days 12 min 5 sec ago


Linus has no trouble with attribution to MINIX

And it is prominently mentioned in the Usenet posting that got Linux or GNU/Linux going.

Anyway, there is no war between Tanenbaum and Linus in spite of many efforts from the outside to get one going.

Andrew believes that a microkernel (or microkernels) is the way to go. Linux prefers monolithic. That's the extent of the disagreement.

Making it more than it is helps no one.



RamboTribble's picture


9 years 1 week 12 hours 6 min ago


In perspective

While by current standards it might be more correct to assign Linus Torvalds authorship, or at least editorship, of the operating system kernel, it should be remembered that when the phrase was coined, operating systems did far less than the Linux kernel does today.

ajc's picture


9 years 1 week 7 hours 30 min ago


Get over it

It's time to stop tilting at this particular windmill. The cornerstone of the free software stack is now something called Linux. The Linux operating system. It uses the Linux kernel. The Linux operating system uses some GNU userspace tools, among other things. So does BSD, for that matter, but you don't see anyone trying to refer to GNU/BSD, or GNU/MacOS. Everyone recognizes FSF's contribution to the Linux operating system, along with Stallman's pioneering work to get the whole thing rolling, but the general concensus is that we want to call our operating system "Linux." Get over it.

aboutblank's picture


9 years 6 days 19 hours 54 min ago


I think you are confused of

I think you are confused of the facts along with many millions around the world.

The Berkeley Software Distributions have their own operating systems. It is possible for them to stand on their own without any GNU software. The fact that GNU software is distributed together with the BSDs does not entitle the system to be called BSD/GNU. The BSDs can work perfectly fine without GNU and so, it doesn't require "GNU" to be included in the system name. It would be a different matter if the BSD systems undoubtedly require the GNU system to operate. Meanwhile, there is nothing inaccurate to refer to a BSD system that includes GNU software to be called BSD/GNU.

The same thing is true for the MacOS X. The Mac systems may include GNU software but they are in no means are dependant upon the GNU software; they work perfectly well without GNU software. It's fine to call it GNU/MacOS but in reality, GNU contributes a non-essential part of these systems and so, does not require that name.

Linux is not the same as these other systems. Linux without GNU does nothing useful. GNU can stand on its own without Linux. GNU together with Linux provide the basis for the rest of the system and so the system should be called GNU/Linux. Using the name Linux to cover anything other than the kernel is misleading as Linux is nothing more than an operating system kernel. Linux should not be the title to refer to the combination of the kernel, GNU and the rest of the system.

This distinction is necessary as people are confused about who to blame whenever things need fixing. When everything is distinct, people can direct their concerns more intelligently. To call a GNU/Linux system just Linux perpetuates a culture laziness and confusion; laziness because some people are too lazy to say three extra syllables in the knowledge that GNU is an essential part of the GNU/Linux system; confusion because it is not accurate to implicitly apply the culture and purposes of Linux to other things such as the GNU system by labelling GNU as a part of a Linux system.

greengrass's picture


9 years 6 days 19 hours 42 min ago


This is different

Whether you call the OS GNU/Linux or Linux is beside the point. This article calls Linus Torvalds the inventor of an OS. This is incorrect. He invented a kernel not an OS.

This confusion is caused by the fact that people call the OS Linux. When people think that the whole OS _is_ Linux they make the assumption that Torvalds invented the whole OS because he invented (the) Linux (kernel).

People don't get confused when you give the OS and the kernel different names.

aboutblank's picture


9 years 6 days 22 hours 40 min ago


Operating Systems: Design and Implementation

I believe that Linus Torvalds gets his definition of "operating system" from Professor Andrew Tanenbaum. I make this assertion because of the knowledge that Torvalds has read the book, Operating Systems: Design and Implementation by Andrew S. Tanenbaum, Albert S. Woodhull.

In this book, the computer system is divided into application programs, system programs and the hardware. Within the system programs include the operating system, the compiler, the editor and the command interpreter; that is the operating system is distinct to other system software (such as the compiler and the command interpreter). Application software (such as a banking system or a web browser) are distinct to the system software. The operating system is described as a collection of programs/functions intended to provide a convenient interface to the hardware resources and the computer system's process management .

Under this distinction, the characteristics of Linux would merit it to be called an operating system.

RMS uses a different definition to operating system. His definition would include the operating system kernel AND system software AND various application software that make the software-system-as-a-whole more useful. RMS asks people to refer to a GNU/Linux operating system because in his view, the Linux kernel is not enough to be called an operating system and labelling the whole software system as "Linux" is grossly distorting the label operating system. In addition to that, he'd like people to be aware of the GNU system and the purpose for which the GNU system exits.

Under Tanenbaum's definition, you could include GNU's C library as part of the operating system because it really does provide rudimentary functionality that is worthy of belonging to the operating system.

As for me, I believe that it's misleading to refer to the whole collection of software as "operating system". I believe in the distinction between system software and application software. Linux is undoubtedly a critical part of the system and so, it is correct to include the Linux name as part of the system. Since a large part of GNU provides the remaining essential parts of system software, I believe it is correct to label the system-as-a-whole as "GNU/Linux". Everything else isn't necessary as part of the system and so, requires only a secondary mention compared to the more essential Linux and GNU software.

Balzac's picture


9 years 6 days 13 hours 24 min ago


That may be a fair explanation for the use of "operating system"

in this particular case by the person who interviewed Linus Torvalds.

Most people say "operating system" when referring to the whole thing, not just the kernel. Apple's OSX means Operating System 10.

IBM's OS/2 seems to refer to the "Operating System" with OS.

I definitely agree with you on calling the whole thing GNU/Linux and referring to the kernel as Linux.

Stallman's emphasis on freedom is worth remembering. His GNU project and GPL license are at the heart of the movement of computer users who refuse to kneel before the proprietary code-hoarders, monopolists, authoritarian administrators and surrender our freedom.