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Again, Linux is not an OS

Reading Free Software Magazine's "Google Chrome OS. Or, how KDE and GNOME managed to shoot each other dead" I yet again see the ages old complaining about there being two major desktop environments on Linux and how bad this is. In another article, "10 Things I Hate About Linux" at least two reasons named have to do with there being too many choices, namely, the user having to choose between all the good available distros and the application vendor having to choose between those same distros for full support.

I agree these are issues if you look at Linux as a whole, or rather, all Linux operating systems, as a single thing. If you do that then this favorite "single" operating system of yours has a terrible case of multiple personality disorder and has had it from the beginning. This multiplicity is probably the one thing people most complain about when talking about why Linux hasn't had as much success on the desktop as some had hoped. Yet Linux advocates would readily say that it's also its biggest strength. I no longer am such a Linux advocate. I agree that an operating system which doesn't have a coherent identity is ill poised for winning in the market. This multiplicity is also the major source of all the complexity that people find to be superfluous.

But don't get me wrong. I am not siding with Tony Mobily's call for one desktop environment or any other kind of panning down of choice. Instead I'm calling for a different approach.

This brings me back to something I wrote earlier this year: Linux is not an OS. Besides the typical point that Linux is just the kernel my basic point was that what we typically call "Linux" is not really a single coherent operating system, but rather a framework for developing them or an ecosystem which spawns them. I instead opt to call specific distributions as operating systems rather than all of Linux, whatever that may include.

What other choice do we really have other than sticking to our "Linux with a personality disorder" paradigm? Do we really go and unify KDE and GNOME somehow? What about all of the other window managers and desktop environments such as Xfce, LXDE etc.? Where do you draw the line? I find it rather silly to still be complaining and calling for such unifications. That simply doesn't make any sense and will never happen. It's in the nature of Free Open Source Software. The only way in which that kind of unification would happen is if you had some big corporation somehow buy up all this Free Software and become the de facto "owner" or steward to all that is "Linux". They would then be calling all the shots when it comes to KDE, GNOME, LXDE, XFCE, X.org, Linux kernel, GNU toolchain, you name it.

Of course, that wont happen. So what's the point of calling for unification or complaining about the fact that it hasn't and wont happen? It's like complaining about the electronic components store having too many components doing the same function because you keep insisting on calling the electronics components store a single electronic device of some kind. If you actually want a device and want to sell that device on the market then you better choose your components, build the device and sell the device under its own name that designates only it and not the components store including all the other components which are available in it.

That illustrates quite perfectly the problem I see with the currently prevalent view of "Linux". You have many many software components developed independently among which there are many choices for the same function. These components are taken to build specific kinds of distributions yet there are still so many people who insist that we have to talk about all of these components at once as a single OS instead of talking about these specific distributions as operating systems and this "Linux" software components store as simply a repository of parts.

This shift in thinking removes the "too much choice" problem and all that is associated with it. If you want some "Linux", or Linux based operating system, to succeed in the market and you feel that "this and that" is necessary for it to do that then advocate that and make a distribution that matches those requirements. Then instead of marketing all of Linux while providing that distribution, market that distribution as an OS in its own right. After all, isn't this precisely what Google is doing? They don't market Linux, but Android. They don't market Linux, but Chrome OS. Notice the "OS" in there. They probably couldn't care less about this mythical notion such as the "Linux market share". They care about Chrome and will without a doubt care about Chrome market share.

Talking about "Linux market share" is actually kind of silly because you can't even define Linux as a single coherent thing. It's multiple disparate things at once.

To come back to the GNOME vs. KDE non-issue what I would suggest Tony Mobily advocate is this. Forget about Linux. Think about a perfect operating system which has all of the requirements you feel would win with Google and other major companies or the desktop market as a whole. Forget even about this mutual compatibility between different Linux distributions. It's largely a myth anyway. I'm quite vary of running even Debian deb packages in Ubuntu let alone OpenSUSE or Fedora RPMs. For all intents and purposes these are different operating systems.

If you think a single desktop environment is necessary for an operating system to be marketable then pick one and focus solely on that one. If you pick KDE for instance then forget completely about GNOME, Xfce or any other. You don't even have to ship it in repositories if you even have repositories. If it's not a part of your OS then it's not a part of your OS. Make a fine line between what is supported by your OS and what isn't.

Now I know many people will, again, protest this view because they really for some strange reason seem to like this fuzzy and incoherent idea of what Linux represents. It's supposedly at the same time a single product and many products at once. Yeah, sure.

But you will fail. Ideas at war with themselves seldom win.

Comments

Re: Again, Linux is not an OS

 

Ican't help but disagree with this. Linux, in and of itself is the kernel part of the OS, which in terms of what an Operating System actually is and does, is the core of the OS.

The accompanying apps of the actual OS are those that increase functionality and interoperability of devices and software, which in this case are largely provided by GNU, hence as a total operating System, we know it as GNU/Linux.

For those maybe unaware of what an operating system actually is, IT is the core software that allows user level software to direct and communicate with the hardware that is the physical machine that is the computer.

Additional software that is installed for user interaction sits 'atop' the operating system allowing the user to perform tasks and functions as desired or required in their purpose of using a computer.

So GNU/Linux is indeed an operating system. It is moreso 'the' operating system and the distributions that pull the various choices that the developers of GNU/Linux have assembled are presenting merely one facet of what the Operating System as a whole offers.

The same could be said for any other Operating System such as Windows and Apple if they allowed it to work in such fashion.

Surely anyone can see that both Microsoft and Apple provide or can provide more than one version or application that does the same task as existing version. The difference is, Microsoft and Apple's companies make the determinations as to which of the various available applications are included as the default apps.

In the GNU/Linux world, that option is left to anyone who wants to take the time to assemble the software and make those selections themselves.

In the end though, all of the distributions that are out there are much more similar than they are different as the software they use is all from the same core source which is GNU/Linux, the Operating System.

Just because GNU/Linux allows developers choice in which of the applications to include in their presentation of GNU/Linux does not mean they are separate and disconnect from GNU/Linux. It just means that instead of one group of corporate users taking the same warehouse of software and presenting one assemblage of it, there is freedom for several groups to assemble their own presentations.

A truly 'free' Operating System is GNU/Linux

Re: Again, Linux is not an OS

 

Wrong. the Linux kernel IS the OS.

Re: Again, Linux is not an OS

I wasn't disputing that "Linux" is the kernel or core of the OS. I am talking about "Linux" the name as it is used by most people to describe all distributions at the same time. You could call them merely variations of a single OS, but I'm afraid that isn't very convincing and it would seem most people outside of "the community" would attest to it. If it really is the same OS then why does one binary just work on one distro and not so much on the other? That should be quite a basic thing.

We're talking about differences in what supposedly makes up the OS according to first anonymous: the kernel plus the basic libraries of the toolchain. You have different versions of these and the binaries are compiled to different versions and compiled with different options so you end up breaking that tie which is supposed to make two distros merely a variation of the same thing at the very basic level. Add on top of the changes in how the file system is configured, the different package management systems and finally the desktop environment to make it all actually useful to the common user and you have quite a bit more distinction than there is even between Windows or Mac OS versions.

Today I can still run software made in the Windows 7 era on Windows XP. Try something like that on Linux without engaging in development activities (such as compiling for one).

I guess there's not much argument if you however just wanna define the OS as merely the kernel, but what use is such a definition which isn't used and understood by most people? And that's what I'm talking about, the way we approach those people when we present or market to them. They don't see the little microworld you see and they could care less. Definitions are a matter of language. They're used merely as disposable mental handles for real things thereby helping us communicate. My argument is that we're failing terribly in communicating with people because these techie definitions of the OS aren't the ones they share nor even understand.

And you can speak till you're short of breath how only the kernel is the OS, what use is it if nobody cares? It's then just a word that fails to communicate, which is to say, a word that is useless.

Re: Again, Linux is not an OS

 

I am confused by this statement: "Today I can still run software made in the Windows 7 era on Windows XP. Try something like that on Linux without engaging in development activities (such as compiling for one)."

But try running software from the Windows XP era on Windows Vista 7. For newer software there is usually back-ports and PPA's. For instance you can run Firefox 3.5 on Ubuntu Hardy. It is not usually a kernel incompatibility that causes newer software to not run on an older or newer kernel. It is 'software' dependency hell.

Re: Again, Linux is not an OS

Anonymous wrote:

I am confused by this statement: "Today I can still run software made in the Windows 7 era on Windows XP. Try something like that on Linux without engaging in development activities (such as compiling for one)."

But try running software from the Windows XP era on Windows Vista 7. For newer software there is usually back-ports and PPA's. For instance you can run Firefox 3.5 on Ubuntu Hardy. It is not usually a kernel incompatibility that causes newer software to not run on an older or newer kernel. It is 'software' dependency hell.

Well, for one there's typically far less interest in running old software and far more in running new software on old operating system (Windows XP case). That said, even if it's just software dependency hell it still means software wont run. The user doesn't really know the specifics nor do they usually care. They just know it doesn't work.

I agree about backports and PPAs though, but hardy is still far newer than Windows XP. Old in Linux terms is still new in Windows terms apparently. Smiling

Regards

Re: Again, Linux is not an OS

 

Hell no the kernel is not an OS, that's a ridiculous statement. Sure, it's the brains of it, or the engine that runs the car if you'd rather, but i's not an "operating system". I find it hard to believe anyone would even attempt that arguement. A DISTRIBUTION is the OS. Can you boot into the kernel? Can you do even the bare minimum on the Kernel alone, like terminal? I'm not the most technical linux person, but I'm fairly certain you can't. Why? Because there's no distribution out there called......LINUX. If it were possible....it'd be out there.
Let's not confuse these two issues, it's cut and dry. "Linux" is under no circumstances and operating system.

It doesn't matter whether you run a minimalist distribution or one with all the apps and full of bloat. That ALL have more then the kernel.

Re: Again, Linux is not an OS

 

I think it is a question of semantics. For people concerned about the hardware/software interface and functions to be provided to userland (filesystems drivers etc.) Linux IS the OS, just as different versions of Windows are distributions of the NT OS or OSX is a distribution of the XNU.
So when we talk about that we want an as large as possible Linux adoption due to the fact that we want hardware manufacturers to take notice - I find it quite reasonable to consider Linux a single OS.

Personally, I often feel a bit uncomfortable around GNU/FSF proponents that generally seem to have a much more ideological perspective on software compared to the Linux/OSI camp (I actually think Thorvalds have a very sensible view on the whole matter). When it comes to userland, the rise of several new userlands on Linux may make the distinctions between the term Linux and GNU/Linux more clear (for example Android Dalvik/Linux or glendix Plan9/Linux... I have no idea if the BSD userland works on Linux, but otherwise that could be another variant). I look forward to more choice in the userland dimension and I think that will turn interesting in the future.

Talking about the "higher level" stuff, though I definitely think that one could call different distribution families "different OS:es" (Debian-based etc...) The choice of words is however unfortunate. The best would ofcourse have been if the term OS had been more clearly defined in general.

Re: Again, Linux is not an OS

 

What I have been doing lately is calling it linux-based OS. Is that a good term or is something better.

Sheng-Chieh

I get you point....I think.

 

I disagree that too much choice holds Linux back. But I do agree that you can't just say "Linux" and expect that stand as a description for all Linux distros. We should think of Linux at the distro level when talking about an OS because this is the level that common person will interact with. I disagreed with the Linux commercial campaign for this very reason. You can't get people to come over to "Linux" and expect them to know what to do. They are going to have to come to a particular distro. Either advertising should be done at the distro level or some of the major distros should get together and create Flagship Linux as a landing point for new converts that can then point them to other more specific distros once they have learned the ropes. Or if they just want general computing abilities let them stay with Flagship.

Re: Again, Linux is not an OS

 

It's all in the name.

For some time now I have been using Ubuntu and more recently Mint.

When people ask, that's what I say. I don't say Linux.

Easy.

Re: Again, Linux is not an OS

Anonymous wrote:

I think it is a question of semantics. For people concerned about the hardware/software interface and functions to be provided to userland (filesystems drivers etc.) Linux IS the OS, just as different versions of Windows are distributions of the NT OS or OSX is a distribution of the XNU.
So when we talk about that we want an as large as possible Linux adoption due to the fact that we want hardware manufacturers to take notice - I find it quite reasonable to consider Linux a single OS.

Personally, I often feel a bit uncomfortable around GNU/FSF proponents that generally seem to have a much more ideological perspective on software compared to the Linux/OSI camp (I actually think Thorvalds have a very sensible view on the whole matter). When it comes to userland, the rise of several new userlands on Linux may make the distinctions between the term Linux and GNU/Linux more clear (for example Android Dalvik/Linux or glendix Plan9/Linux... I have no idea if the BSD userland works on Linux, but otherwise that could be another variant). I look forward to more choice in the userland dimension and I think that will turn interesting in the future.

Talking about the "higher level" stuff, though I definitely think that one could call different distribution families "different OS:es" (Debian-based etc...) The choice of words is however unfortunate. The best would ofcourse have been if the term OS had been more clearly defined in general.

It would indeed seem that different perspectives dictate the definitions people have of an "OS" and I understand that certain techies who deal with the kernel and userland like to consider the kernel an OS. At least I think I do. But that's besides the point. From the perspective of those of us who wish to see "Linux" more popular and better adopted all over, that is, from the perspective of "Linux Advocacy" and marketing, what is of most importance is actually communicating with most people out there.

And I think it's fairly clear how most people out there who have any conception of an "OS" define it as. It's the entire software environment that powers their computers. It's what "Windows XP" and "Windows 7" are and conversely it's what Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSUSE etc. are. It's what they can see and experience. So when we define the OS in a way that conveys nothing to them and will only leave them baffled we're dooming our advocacy and marketing at the first step.

That said, kudos to Sheng-Chieh and other two commenters.

Re: Again, Linux is not an OS

 

You are correct, but it don't sell LINUX.

If you remember back to the late 80's and into the 90's, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs realized that "Choice does not sell". Instead they created sexy OS's (one more that the other) that offered a single solution. Customers liked the limiting of choice. Bill and Steve both are Billionares.

This is the quandry, most people don't want chioce, most technical people do. Who do we package for?

I think UBUNTU, RED HAT, and SUSE, are playing on this. RED HAT dropped the free RED HAT distribution (really renaming it to FEDORA) majorly to distinguish it from their commercial offering. It worked. SUSE did the same with openSUSE. It is working. I'll bet UBUNTU will do it soon.

It's a people issue that will never be resolve, just played upon, and endlessly debated.

Re: Again, Linux is not an OS

 

>I think UBUNTU, RED HAT, and SUSE, are playing on this. RED HAT dropped the free RED HAT distribution (really renaming it to FEDORA) majorly to distinguish it from their commercial offering. It worked. SUSE did the same with openSUSE. It is working. I'll bet UBUNTU will do it soon.

Actually, if you remember, SUSE, Caldera (prior to the hideous SCO lawsuit) and another distro (I forget which), attempted to address the issue of a 'single binary' years ago. They agreed to release their distros in synch with the same basic kernel, libraries and packaging system so that packages for one of these distros could run on any of them. I don't remember whether they were going to each add custom stuff (like config tools) or just try to build their businesses on support of a common distro. It was an interesting idea back then, and it was aimed at competing with RedHat (who were still selling a desktop version). But along the way, SCO went crazy, SUSE got bought by Novell, and the third guy probably just folded.

All of which makes me wary of letting the distros determine what 'Linux' is. Their incentives are up in the air. Most are businesses trying to find a way to make money selling an OS into a distorted market where their customers have to buy and discard an expensive OS in order to use what they're selling. And since the customers can't get a reasonably priced pre-load, and the do-it-yourself variety is available for free, these businesses aren't viable. Their best bet seems to be release churn among the few customers willing to pay for a constant stream of upgrades. Sure, you have Canonical, which has billionaire funding and apparently doesn't need to be a 'business' for the foreseeable future, but it's not much better to have to depend on the whims of a nice billionaire.

Maybe somebody should form a 'linux users' organization and come up with a spec for a standard system that the members would all be willing to buy (for real money). Then see if the distros would be willing to target that spec in the interest of some real sales. Might work...

Re: Again, Linux is not an OS

 

As an embedded software developer, the term OS was a "low-level" one and I never thought calling windows an operating system was correct, even though microsoft called it that since at least win 3.1. Its unnamed, proprietary blob below the win32 api was an operating system. I often used an embedded-RTOS or real-time OS, which didn't necessarity have anything to do with user interaction thru buttons and displays. I guess Mac also calls snow leopard an OS but I can live with that as a name for the version like windows 7, since windows isn't an integrated hardware/software appliance like Mac.

The less technical PC user who has no interest in the computer itself other than seeing a box thats like an interactive TV set for the purposes of viewing stuff and communicating with others, and the controls for doing that are in a familiar place, that always works the same way, likely does not know or care about the term "operating system" and "kernel".

OS _means_ kernel - but nobody other than geeks care.

So when observing what's going on in the world with regards to Personal Computer Desktop Environments (PCDEs) as I like to call them (wow-just made that up!), we should talk Android, ChromeOS, Ubuntu, Fedora, Windows, SnowLeopard, etc. When the audience is more computer savy, we can say hey Mac is based on the Unix OS and Windows based on an unnamed OS and ChromeOS based on the linux OS.

So the question that makes me roll my eyes everytime "why hasn't Linux put Windows (desktop) out of business yet?" is a totally invalid question. "Why is windows 7 making Ubuntu 9.l0 eat crow" is a valid one. But, I hope windows stays around and popular - its my Linux antivirus solution. Long live windows!

Re: Again, Linux is not an OS

 

Your description of what Linux is has some resonance, although it runs afoul of a lot of definition issues so it will never gain a lot of traction the way you put it. And it's certainly true that those who call for unification of everything are far beside the point; it can't and won't happen due to the nature of the beasts we're dealing with. It's like suggesting solving an engineering problem by violating the laws of physics: Not useful. And in any case, I think that the benefits of wide choice are overall on average worth the costs.
But no matter how you define Linux and no matter how wrong their proposed solutions may be, there does remain a problem, and your proposed approach doesn't particularly solve it. The issue as I see it is compatibility. Whatever you want to say "Linux" is, whether you call it a components store or whatever, there are difficulties with fitting the components together. If half of the danged things won't fit together and even the smartest outfits can't seem to build a machine out of them that doesn't have a few bits that aren't properly connected to other bits, then you have a problem. Suggesting that people make yet more new components or become yet another of the hordes of smart people trying to fit components together isn't a bad thing exactly, but it's unrelated to the problem.
In actual electronic gizmos, the way they tackle this problem is through standards. You can build all kinds of electronic devices, but you've got a standard for what kind of plug they'll plug into. That kind of approach has been useful in Linux before, such as when Gnome and KDE got together on menus etc., and will continue I think to be the best way to tackle the difficulties caused by wide variety and choice.

Re: Again, Linux is not an OS

"anonymous" wrote:

All of which makes me wary of letting the distros determine what 'Linux' is.

Actually they wouldn't really do that. The idea is to just treat the Linux brand as the brand of the technical ecosystem of software components and a kernel. These distros would just be "Linux based" operating systems.. but all that they'd ultimately define to the end users are themselves not the entirety of "Linux".

"anonymous" wrote:

The less technical PC user who has no interest in the computer itself other than seeing a box thats like an interactive TV set for the purposes of viewing stuff and communicating with others, and the controls for doing that are in a familiar place, that always works the same way, likely does not know or care about the term "operating system" and "kernel".

OS _means_ kernel - but nobody other than geeks care.

So when observing what's going on in the world with regards to Personal Computer Desktop Environments (PCDEs) as I like to call them (wow-just made that up!), we should talk Android, ChromeOS, Ubuntu, Fedora, Windows, SnowLeopard, etc. When the audience is more computer savy, we can say hey Mac is based on the Unix OS and Windows based on an unnamed OS and ChromeOS based on the linux OS.

I wouldn't mind that. Actually my main beef is with calling all of them as if they were a single thing ("Linux"). I like the idea of simply using the name of the project just as it is, regardless of whether you add an "OS" to it or not, and market it as such. The point is that this still communicates something cohesive to the user.

anonymous wrote:

But no matter how you define Linux and no matter how wrong their proposed solutions may be, there does remain a problem, and your proposed approach doesn't particularly solve it. The issue as I see it is compatibility. Whatever you want to say "Linux" is, whether you call it a components store or whatever, there are difficulties with fitting the components together. If half of the danged things won't fit together and even the smartest outfits can't seem to build a machine out of them that doesn't have a few bits that aren't properly connected to other bits, then you have a problem. Suggesting that people make yet more new components or become yet another of the hordes of smart people trying to fit components together isn't a bad thing exactly, but it's unrelated to the problem.

Well there might be some merit to that argument, but I'm of opinion that where the available components don't fit a serious provider of a Linux based OS (a distribution) should write their own thing or an efficient compatibility layer. Linux and FOSS components in general are just a convenient repository of stuff, but that doesn't have to mean these components must all fit perfectly to the end result that a Linux based OS vendor desires for it.

That said, sure, I don't mind standardization at all, but that's a given in the entire software industry and not just Linux. It would be nice if we had standardized everything across all popular operating systems in existence! That's not necessarily an exclusively Linux issue. At least that's how I think about it when I don't consider "Linux" to be anything more than a special group of distinct operating systems or if you will PCDEs like the other anonymous called it. Smiling

Re: Again, Linux is not an OS

 

I agree that Linux is not an OS - but then neither is Ubuntu, or Fedora. In addition to the OS they include all the bundled applications - hence they are OS/application bundles - not just an OS.
Even ignoring that aspect, a typical distro like Ubuntu is still not a single OS as such. Because there are no stable api's, each version of Ubuntu is effectively a different OS - Karmic is probably as different from Jaunty as Karmic is to Fedora 12. There is no Ubuntu OS, instead there is a Karmic OS, and a Warty OS, etc.
Linux will never displace Windows when every six months you have to throw all your applications away and install new versions that will work with the next revision of the OS. Until Linux has a standardised set of api's, and is separated from its applications, as an real OS would be, it will never be a real general purpose OS like Windows.

Re: Again, Linux is not an OS

 
libervisco wrote:

They don't see the little microworld you see and they couldn't care less.

FTFY