Mike Gerwitz

Activist for User Freedom



There has been a lot of talk lately about a most unique combination: GNU—the fully free/libre operating system—and Microsoft Windows—the freedom-denying, user-controlling, surveillance system. There has also been a great deal of misinformation. I’d like to share my thoughts.

Before we can discuss this subject, we need to clarify some terminology: We have a free/libre operating system called GNU. Usually, it’s used with the kernel Linux, and is together called the GNU/Linux (or GNU+Linux) operating system. But that’s not always the case. For example, GNU can be run with its own kernel, The GNU Hurd (GNU/Hurd). It might be run on a system with a BSD kernel (e.g. GNU/kFreeBSD). But now, we have a situation where we’re taking GNU/Linux, removing Linux, and adding in its place a Windows kernel. This combination is referred to as GNU/kWindows (GNU with the Windows kernel added).1

GNU values users’ freedoms. Windows does exactly the opposite.

When users talk about the operating system “Linux”, what they are referring to is the GNU operating system with the kernel Linux added. If you are using the GNU operating system in some form, then many of the programs you are familiar with on the command line are GNU programs: bash, (g)awk, grep, ls, cat, bc, tr, gcc, emacs, and so on. But GNU is a fully free/libre Unix replacement, not just a collection of GNU programs. Linux is the kernel that supports what the operating system is trying to do; it provides what are called system calls to direct the kernel to perform certain actions, like fork new processes or allocate memory. This is an important distinction—not only is calling all of this software “Linux” incorrect, but it discredits the project that created a fully free/libre Unix replacement—GNU.

This naming issue is so widespread that most users would not recognize what GNU is, even if they are using a GNU/Linux operating system. I recently read an article that referred to GNU Bash as “Linux’s Bash”; this is simply a slap in the face to all the hackers that have for the past 26 years been writing what is one of today’s most widely used shells on Unix-like systems (including on Apple’s proprietary Mac OSX), and all the other GNU hackers.

Microsoft and Canonical have apparently been working together to write a subsystem that translates Linux system calls into something Windows will understand—a compatibility layer. So, software compiled to run on a system with the kernel Linux will work on Windows through system call translation. Many articles are calling this “Linux on Windows”. This is a fallacy: the kernel Linux is not at all involved! What we are witnessing is the GNU operating system running with a Windows kernel instead of Linux.

This is undoubtedly a technical advantage for Microsoft—Windows users want to do their computing in a superior environment that they might be familiar with on GNU/Linux or other Unix-like operating systems, like Apple’s freedom-denying Mac OSX. But thinking about it like this is missing an essential concept:

When users talk about “Linux” as the name of the operating system, they avoid talking about GNU. And by avoiding mention of GNU, they are also avoiding discussion of the core principles upon which GNU is founded—the belief that all users deserve software granting four essential freedoms: the freedom to use the program for any purpose; the freedom to study the program and modify it to suit your needs (or have someone do it on your behalf); the freedom to share the program with others; and the freedom to share your changes with others. We call software that respects these four freedoms free/libre software.

Free software is absolutely essential: it ensures that users, who are the most vulnerable, are in control of their computing—not software developers or corporations. Any program that denies users any one of their four freedoms is non-free (or proprietary)—that is, freedom-denying software. This means that any non-free software, no matter its features or performance, will always be inferior to free software that performs a similar task.

Not everyone likes talking about freedom or the free software philosophy. This disagreement resulted in the “open source” development methodology, which exists to sell the benefits of free software to businesses without discussing the essential ideological considerations. Under the “open source” philosophy, if a non-free program provides better features or performance, then surely it must be “better”, because they have outperformed the “open source” development methodology; non-free software isn’t always considered to be a bad thing.

So why would users want to use GNU/kWindows? Well, probably for the same reason that they want GNU tools on Mac OSX: they want to use software they want to use, but they also want the technical benefits of GNU that they like. What we have here is the “open source” philosophy—because if the user truly valued her freedom, she would use a fully free operating system like GNU/Linux. If a user is already using Windows (that is, before considering GNU/kWindows), then she does gain some freedom by installing GNU: she has more software on her system that respects her freedoms, and she is better off because of that.

But what if you’re using GNU/Linux today? In that case, it is a major downgrade to switch to a GNU/kWindows system; by doing so, you are surrendering your freedom to Microsoft. It does not matter how many shiny features Microsoft might introduce into its freedom-denying surveillance system; an operating system that respects your freedoms will always be a superior choice. We would do our best to dissuade users from switching to a GNU/kWindows system for the technical benefits that GNU provides.

So we have a couple different issues—some factual, some philosophical:

Firstly, please don’t refer to GNU/kWindows as “Linux on Windows”, or any variant thereof; doing so simply propagates misinformation that not only confounds the situation, but discredits the thousands of hackers working on the GNU operating system. It would also be best if you avoid calling it “Ubuntu on Windows”; it isn’t a factually incorrect statement—you are running Ubuntu’s distribution of GNU—but it still avoids mentioning the GNU Project. If you want to give Ubuntu credit for working with Microsoft, please call it “Ubuntu GNU/kWindows” instead of “Ubuntu”. By mentioning GNU, users will ask questions about the project, and might look it up on their own. They will read about the free software philosophy, and will hopefully begin to understand these issues—issues that they might not have even been aware of to begin with.

Secondly, when you see someone using a GNU/kWindows system, politely ask them why. Tell them that there is a better operating system out there—the GNU/Linux operating system—that not only provides those technical features, but also provides the feature of freedom! Tell them what free software is, and try to relate it to them so that they understand why it is important, and even practical.

It’s good to see more people benefiting from GNU; but we can’t be happy when it is being sold as a means to draw users into an otherwise proprietary surveillance system, without so much as a mention of our name, or what it is that we stand for.

  1. This name comes from Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU Project.↩︎