What's in a Name?

Copyright (c) 2000-2001 by Rich Morin
published in Silicon Carny, October 2000

Names affect the way we think about things, so we should be careful about the names we use.

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
  The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
  Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
    His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

  - from "The Naming of Cats"
    (T.S. Eliot, "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats")

The name "Unix", we are told, started out as a pun on "Multics", the operating system that Ken and Dennis were working on at Bell Labs before AT&T pulled out of the project.

Later, when the "suits" got involved, the name was changed (and trademarked) as "UNIX". This trademark has changed hands a few times, bouncing between AT&T, Bell Labs, Western Electric, and (perhaps) a few other players.

The name's current owner, if I am not mistaken, is The Open Group (www.opengroup.org) an international organization that promotes product branding and certification as a means of "enabling enterprise integration".

Although The Open Group encourages the "UNIX" use, old-line techies tend to use the earlier form. This seems to be relatively safe; I've used the "Unix" form for a number of years and haven't yet received an admonishing letter.

On the other hand, maybe I've just been lucky. A few years ago, a vendor described Linux as a "Unix-like" operating system. They soon got a "cease and desist" letter from The Open Group. So, being hackers, they changed their tune: "Unix", they now said, "is a Linux-like operating system".

Because a licensing peculiarity, however, we have seen a plethora of "Unix-like" OS names: AIX, A/UX, DG-UX, HP-UX, IRIX, etc. It seems that the commercial Unix vendors, despite paying large amounts of money to license the Unix source code, did not get the right to use the name for their derived operating systems.

In any case, the last big "labeling" push in the Unix arena centered around System V: "System V: Consider it Standard". More than a few BSD fans, to be sure, considered System V to be substandard (and said so :-).

Even Bill Joy suggested that System V might be more of a labeling phenomenon than a true technical standard. I recall him saying something like "I don't know what Unix will look like in the future, but it will be called 'System V'".

Linux Dominates World (News at 11)

It appears, in any case, that more and more "Unix" (and Unix-like :-) systems are actually being called "Linux", at least in marketing-speak and the mainstream press. For example, when Apple deigns to mention the (BSD and Mach) underpinnings of Mac OS X, they are all too likely to be called "Linux-like".

With so much emphasis on the Linux name, and so little consistency between Linux distributions, perhaps "Linux" will become a generic term. "So, you run Sun Linux; I run BSD Linux, myself." Aside from damaging the Linux trademark, however, this usage would obscure some important distinctions. Can't we do a bit better?

Eclectic Systems

Unix variants (e.g., HP-UX, Solaris, UnixWare) and their Open Source cousins (e.g., *BSD, Linux) play a major role in the world of computing. In fact, these systems have become part of the infrastructure of enterprises around the world. Thus, their stability is of critical interest to a large number of institutions.

Unlike more proprietary operating systems, however, they are not the monolithic creations of individual corporations. Instead, they are assembled (and customized) by a variety of "integrators" (e.g., Debian, FreeBSD, Red Hat, Sun), using "packages" (e.g., GNU tools, Perl, Sendmail) that have been developed and maintained by a wide-ranging community of users, administrators, and programmers. Thus:

  • Distributions are highly modular at the file level.

    Distributions contain thousands of files, generating still more files as they are used. Files can be added, modified, or replaced to customize system behavior. Taking advantage of this, local sites commonly add commands, customize subsystems, etc.

  • The development process is distributed and cooperative.

    Distributions contain elements (programs and complete subsystems) developed by individuals and organizations around the world. No centralized authority mandates engineering practices; voluntary cooperation (i.e., "rough consensus and running code") takes its place.

There is, at present, no collective term which describes the union of Unix and Open Source operating systems. The term "Unixish systems" is memorable, but rather informal, and legal constraints prevent its large-scale use.

So, given the extremely eclectic nature of these systems, perhaps we should refer to them as "Eclectic Systems". If this usage catches on, we can adopt "Eclectix" as the generic name (:-).

"Free", "Gratis", and "Libre"

For a number of years, the "Free Software" community wrestled with the ambiguity of the English word "free". In languages such as Spanish, no such confusion exists. "Gratis" means free as in "free speech"; "Libre" means free as in "free beer".

Part of the problem, indeed, lies in the fact that Free Software is usually available at no cost to the recipient. Worse, to many folks, free beer is more important than free speech.

"Open Source", in any case, has taken over as the new usage. It appears (usually coupled with Linux) in all coverage by the major press. "Free Software" (and the BSDs) are mentioned infrequently, if at all.

I find it hard to argue with the success of this "re-framing"; Open Source has gotten more attention in the past few years than Free Software received in the previous decade. Nonetheless, the change has a cost.

Licenses which comply with the "Open Source" definition (http://opensource.org/osd.html) need not provide the same protections as, say, the GNU General Public License (www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html).

Worse, some companies use a variety of free and non-free licenses. Sun, for instance, uses free licenses (e.g., the "Sun Public License" and the "GNU General Public License"), as well as the non-free "Sun Community Source License".

So, while you enjoy the increasing visibility of the "Open Source" movement, take some time to look over the history and philosophy of the Free Software movement; www.gnu.org/philosophy is a fine place to start.

About the author

Rich Morin (rdm@cfcl.com) operates Prime Time Freeware (www.ptf.com), a publisher of books about Open Source software. Rich lives in San Bruno, on the San Francisco peninsula.