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29 April 2011, 16:32
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The naming of parts: Time for “Linux Inside”?

by Glyn Moody

Names matter in free software. Just think of the number of electrons that have been spilt arguing over whether it's “Linux” or “GNU/Linux”.

The naming of parts came up when I interviewed Linus back in 1996. I had asked him about his relations with Richard Stallman, and this is what Linus said:

I've had some, not very much. At first he wasn't too interested, because Linux was so PC-centric – just two years ago, it didn't run on anything else. And I suspect Richard really dislikes PCs. So he wasn't really interested in that sense. Lately, when it's become obvious how portable it is and how well it works on other architectures too, I think Richard in that sense looks at Linux in a different light.

One problem we've had, well, problem, kind of clash of personalities, is that Linux has gotten so much press and GNU has gotten so little. So for Richard, he's not pragmatic, he really has this idealistic world-view, he'd really like the system to be called GNU/Linux or something like this. Personally I don't think GNU Linux flies as a name, it should be catchy.

But is “Linux” catchy? The fact that few people have heard of it outside the rather specialised world of free software suggests not. Indeed, far more people have probably come across “Ubuntu”, which has taken on the role of the public face of GNU/Linux to a certain extent. That's good, in the sense that it has done valuable work promoting free software to the general public; but it's also unfortunate in that it has pushed the “Linux” name even further into the background.

Some might ask why that is even a problem. After all, does it really matter what the kernel is called? I'd argue yes, for the slightly counter-intuitive reason that Linux is becoming so successful, particularly in two areas: mobile phones and embedded systems.

The rise and rise of Android has made that particularly name a household word – well, in more affluent countries at least, although once cheap Android-based phones start appearing it will become a global brand. Embedded systems, by contrast, often run Linux without anyone being aware of the fact: one of its strengths is that it doesn't crash, so there are no tell-tale Blue Screens of Death (BSOD) to announce its presence to the world. Instead, it just carries on working reliably and invisibly.

The problem, then, is the fact that Linux can be powering more and more of the digital devices that fill our lives and also be behind the international success that is Android, and yet few outside the computer world are aware of the connection.

Imagine, now, a situation where all these growing successes were perceived as part of a single, larger movement: the rise of Linux, and with it the spread of free software. Once people start to realise that many of their most beloved and faithful gadgets have at their heart the same software, they might begin to look a little differently on this “Linux” thing; they might, for example, begin to seek it out in other devices...maybe even on the desktop.

That is, if we could make people aware of just how widely used Linux is in smartphones and consumer electronics, say, it might even kickstart the use of free software in other domains.

So, the question becomes: how might we do this?

The idea of some kind of “Linux Inside” campaign has been raised before, but the situation is rather different now, largely thanks to Android smartphones. These are probably the first mass-market devices running Linux that people in the street are passionate about; this offers a unique opportunity to tap into that goodwill and transfer some of it to Linux.

To do that, we need a neutral organisation to oversee the project – the Linux Foundation is the obvious candidate – not least because Linus is an employee. As well as being widely respected among the open source community, it already has many of the leading companies that use Linux in their products as members. More recently, it has become more active in the embedded sector, which could be invaluable in gaining support for the idea here too.

Those same companies could help fund advertising campaigns to raise people's awareness of “Linux Inside” or whatever brand were chosen. As well as the efficiency of banding together to promote something for their mutual benefit, there's also the fact that they have – and ought to feel – a moral obligation to support something that they use for free. A few judicious remarks by Linus along those lines ought to work wonders, since it would be a PR disaster for major companies to be seen snubbing his polite request for help in this way.

Of course, for the thousands of smaller manufacturers that use Linux in their consumer devices, that may not be such a convincing argument for them to contribute money to the campaign. But, at the very least, it's in their own interests to stick some “Linux Inside” logo on their boxes – after all, it lets them tap into the generic marketing that would be going on around it, as well as allowing them to claim that the software in their otherwise somewhat anonymous products was “official” (provided, of course, that they made available all their source code....).

In a way, the idea behind “Linux Inside” or equivalent is the same as one of the key advantages of open source: that by collaborating and pooling resources, more can be achieved than by working separately. At the moment, the marketing around devices using Linux is fragmented, each manufacturer pushing a proprietary brand that reveals nothing about its underlying connection to Linux. By creating a strong umbrella brand alongside them, manufacturers would be helping the Linux ecosystem of which they form part – and hence helping themselves.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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