Dropping the "L" Word

linux and ubuntu

Recently on Planet Ubuntu, Ben Collins blogged about a topic near and dear to my heart. The implied comparison of a kernel to an operating system.

His thesis: "Why Linux will (has?) hit a wall in popularity with normal users..." is worth a read.

The popular belief that "Linux" = {your favourite GNU/Linux distro} is limiting, problematic, and mythological. Unlike Ben though, I don't think "Linux" fails due to "too many choices". That's a problem, but it's not the biggest one.

The root cause is branding. "Linux" (the brand) is muddy, confusing, and unfriendly to the mainstream computer user: those on the other side of the chasm. They are the exact people that we need to embrace Ubuntu and they don't *get* "Linux". They don't know what it is. They get a negative connotation when they hear the word. Don't believe me? Ask your non-techie friend or loved one. (I just asked the person beside me and the response I got was less than flattering.)

The co-joining of the words Ubuntu and Linux early on has unfortunately stuck in people's minds. This despite the fact that http://ubuntu.com and official Ubuntu marketing materials have long since dropped the term "Linux". And even more disappointingly, some advocates continue to staple the words together as if they are synonymous.

Don't get me wrong though. Amongst those "in the know" (the Innovators and Early Adopters), the Linux kernel is still great and "Linux" still represents something important. (See the included chart. Hint: I've created this from Mark Shuttleworth's OpenWeek Q+A and some of his adjectives are on it. I've also added a couple of my own). linux and ubuntulinux and ubuntu

Despite its standing with Innovators and Early Adopters, "Linux" is not the brand that will carry the day and take FLOSS mainstream. That chance currently rests with the complete operating system called Ubuntu provided we can clear the confusion and cross the chasm.

That's going to take a strong dose of marketing.


Another author chimes in. Timo Jyrinki: On brands, marketing and technical details

To most people, the Linux brand is a mess of a lot of things, while other brands have the possibility at least to have a more differentiating and unique appearance.



>Don't believe me? Ask your non-techie friend or loved one.

Id venture a guess from personal experience and Id say about 90-95% never heard of either.
The ones that heard of Linux know that there is no viruses and its gratis.

But Buntu koolaid drinkers (i say that using Kubuntu btw) who think that Ubuntu should break away from the tyranny of the masses that is holding them back, isnt new.

At our LUG, we ALWAYS offer newbies a choice of desktop because our GOAL is to get them to switch to Linux, no matter the distro because only THEY know what they like. Not me, not you, not Bob who cant fathom the idea that someone doesnt like their precious distro or DE.
We removed Ubuntu from the choices since the change to Unity and replaced it with another Gnome distro (we still use PCLinuxOS for KDE and vary for XCFE) but when we have machines free we have twice put Unity on for people to test drive. So far, its been a total failure with people.

its all about the desktop my friend, not the distro. most newbies that have the choice between two distro with the saem DE usually comment that its the same thing...

Ubuntu used to be an automatic choice for Gnome (I dont mind Kubuntu but when we vote for it, it always ends up 4th on the list so we never offer it), now that has changed.
And even though most of us hate it at the LUG, we will offer Unity as an option for people to test before we install Linux because CHOICE is what matters. Making a Windows convert feel confortable in Linux is our goal.

Jumping on one bandwagon and taking away this choice would be horrible.

But fanboism has its own problems and not seeing outside of your own bubble is a big one.



Thanks for your message.

Frankly, I don't see what any of this counter-point has to do with the kernel. If your LUG newcomers were offered a free OS with a BSD kernel, would they notice? Would they care? Should they? Let's drop the "L" word and move forward with solving the problem that needs to be solved: "Spreading free software everywhere" in a manner that empowers people.

On the topic of "fanboism", a "fan" is a spectator, a person that watches from the outside and cheers. Ubuntu is a participatory project. It's like a rock concert where everyone is potentially in the band. And when everyone is in the band making the music, why have fans? The "fanboism" concept is a relic from the days of non-participatory proprietary software that is done TO people, not FOR people. It's time to get over the "F" word too.


Not this idiotic "let's-blur-the-picture-marketing" again.

No matter how much Canonical wants to separate itself from the L-word, this is an extremely bad idea.

Ubuntu is not an OS, it's a linux distribution (You might want to check what an OS is).

I'd rather drop the U-word than the L-word.


1) Ubuntu and Canonical are not the same,
2) Last time I checked, Linux was a kernel. I'll keep checking though ;)


Sense Hofstede raises some good points in support of this idea.


Author's update:

Since I wrote the original article, I have discovered (and rediscovered) others who share the theory that "Linux" as a brand is not useful.

There is of course Martin Owens, who I've mentioned in an earlier comment. Martin has written about it here: http://doctormo.org/2009/03/16/linux-the-brand/ and here: http://doctormo.org/2009/12/30/melting-down-the-linux-global-will/

Jeff Hoogland has written about it here: http://jeffhoogland.blogspot.com/2010/08/keep-linux-out-of-it-please.html

Ken Starks has written about it here: http://linuxlock.blogspot.com/2010/04/is-linux-brand-poisoned.html



My experience is that most people who are getting first contact to Ubuntu and/or Linux don't know much of both - many never heard of Linux or Ubuntu so they don't have any association for both words.

And as mentioned earlier: Many neither know the difference between Vista and Windows 7 and sometimes if you ask them what OS they are using, they tell you: "Word".

I usually tell people, that there is Linux and because of it's free, there are several people and groups putting different sets of programs together making it a new distribution (which I explain of being something like a particular "version"). And I tell people, that I was a happy Fedora user but for particular reasons I went to Ubuntu (less hassle in a few cases). - I think this is not so hard to understand even for somebody not bothering much with computers.


I don't really see the need for the inclusion of any other terms. That's not out of disrepect but out of clarity. If we focus on Ubuntu and getting people to understand it on its own merits we stand a better chance of seeing Ubuntu cross the chasm in our lifetime.


I've been saying this for a long time now, we should drop the Linux branding like the tarnished geekism it is.

It's not good enough and I'm certain that we can either use the Ubuntu branding directly if we're being specific, or talk about the FreeDesktop.org specifications which desktops should be using. I'd be quite happy to see sites advertise that they're for FreeDesktops



True. And it was Martin's earlier articles that showed me there were others out there who were concerned about the branding issue. I had thought I was alone.

The more of us who chime in, the more progress that can be made. Thanks Martin for being one of the torch-bearers on this issue.


SO Ubuntu is not powerful, evolving, capable, or energised?

I DO agree with you that there are different connotations... but all I've got to say is.. If 10.04 is any sign of where Ubuntu is headed... then maybe you shouldn't hope for emancipation just yet.


I could have added many more adjectives to the Ubuntu circle. The words are from the "Ask Mark" Q+A that is linked. (See original post).


Your 10.04 reference is cryptic. Where exactly is Ubuntu headed then?


Is that it's so widely used in so many different combinations. The 'Linux' platform, according to the vast majority of Linux users, refers to a structure based around the L-word kernel, the GNU user land tools, X11 and finally one of the big windowing environments on top. Open office and firefox usually get thrown in two, but as application software - they're somewhat more flexible for the user to remove them. Flash is dying so it's no longer the biggest concern for open source desktop users; FreeBSD is still hard to use but enjoys common desktop and server software like OOo, the main FOSS browsers and Java. Lighty, Apache, the latest builds of MySQL. Even the fringe OS's like Haiku and Aros are starting to come within range of that big juicy target of being desktop ready.

The idea of Linux software is vendor transparent. An app packaged for Fedora can be made to work on Ubuntu with a little effort. With careful choice and bundling of dependencies, commercial apps can be packaged in self-installers that run across distributions. Those that have tried to separate themselves from their underlying popular platform of 'linux' and targetted themselves as unique and separate OS's (Richard Stallman, please note the inverted commas.) have in most cases not gone on to great heights - how many people know Ubuntu and Red Hat, but how many non-hardcore geeks remember Mandriva, Corel Linux, Montevista? There's a chance for Ubuntu to be the desktop Android, sure - but when all is said and done, there are more reliable goals to achieve first.


I don't agree. I can't. Ubuntu it's a distribution, and what's in its core is... the L word.

Althought it's not the same, you can't blame the people for the association of ideas. I don't mind if people thinks at first that Ubuntu is Linux or Linux is Ubuntu, because there are chances they get the thing straight after some time.

No offense, but your pic of the Ubuntu/Linux it's a bit pretentious, isn't it?


Yes, Ubuntu is an operating system. Some call this a distribution, but I think that's an even more nebulous term.

The point is whether the term "Linux" aids the mass adoption of a new operating system and presents a positive brand to the casual (non-techie) computer user. My data so far suggests that it does not.

The picture is based on the interview, which is linked.


I disagree. How are people ever going to change their mind about Linux if we remove the word from all the best Linux products? If people becomes aware of the fact that quality products like Android, Ubuntu, MeeGo, TiVo, etc. are (based on) Linux, then their perception might change for the better.


The idea is not to change their mind about "Linux", it's to change their mind about proprietary operating systems like the ones from Redmond and Cupertino. That requires clear marketing and a break with the past.


If the word 'Linux' is not used in places such as describing software compatibility, what should be? Using Ubuntu is not at all correct, and is an insult to those using other distros. Furthermore, it suggests excplicit compatibility (Ubuntu-tested, dev provided .deb files) where none necessarily exists. 'Unix-like systems' could be used in most places, but I hardly thing that is going to help with this issue.


How about "Ubuntu 10.04 or higher" as a start? That's provided that the software is actually tested. Other free operating systems can also have a place, but let's call them what they are: much more than a kernel.


It's a pretty tough issue... Ubuntu is built around the Linux kernel, but so are many other operating systems. We often call these Linux based operating systems "distributions", which doesn't really help the case (what are they distributions of? "Linux", and other software). But that's not the only issue. There are also other operating systems based on other kernels but otherwise using the same (or a similar) base set of software ("The BSDs", and Solaris, for example), which some might also call distributions (but are discouraged strongly by others).

Anyway, I'm getting carried away. Just slap an "OS" after Ubuntu, and perhaps "(infused with the power of [the] Linux [kernel])" after that, and you'll never have the trouble of people confusing Linux with Ubuntu (or any other OS) again! ;-)

Ben, commenting from Ubuntu OS (Infused with the power of Linux)!


I guess one of the reasons why Ubuntu is called Ubuntu and not "Ubuntu Linux" is to not spent money on the rights to use the Linux trademark.


Back in 2004, when we first decided that the name should be Ubuntu and not either "Ubuntu Linux" or "Ubuntu GNU/Linux", it was actually in large part because we felt that the "Linux" vs. "GNU/Linux" debate (in some ways trivial in itself, but a shorthand for the larger debate between open source and free software) would be a distraction if it were part of our distribution's name. Much better to simply have our own strong brand; it wasn't as if the underpinnings were going to be a secret or anything, and we always made our philosophical position clear, but it didn't have to go in our name.

I don't remember the Linux trademark ever coming up in the discussion, although of course that isn't to say that Mark didn't consider it. (Nowadays, licensing the Linux trademark is free - you just have to execute the agreement - but I don't remember whether that was so in 2004.)

"Ubuntu Linux" crept back in later in some people's uses for a while, perhaps because the ubuntu.org domain name was already in use by a much worthier organisation and so we ended up using ubuntulinux.org for a while, before settling on ubuntu.com. Personally, I always felt that was rather unfortunate, but am thankful that we now seem to be consistently moving back to simply "Ubuntu".


i think we all have to start talking about "Linux-powered" systems. It's simple but it's correct + it makes things clear to windows users. I think it's a small nuance that can stop the confusion about Linux powered operating systems.


It's technically correct, if one considers the main source of power to be the kernel and not some other component. I personally don't think the kernel is it's main differentiator.


In short, I disagree with this sentiment. First of all, huge majority of people don't know what Linux or Windows means at all, nor they have illusions or frustrations that Linux is "difficult". So trying to forcefully drop "L" word will mean only one thing - loosing Linux enthusiastic pool of advocacy - and believe me, you don't want to do that. Second, in fact, lot of people have strange positive associations with Linux brand, so I think connection should be kept. I like emphasis on free software and open source concepts in Ubuntu marketing documents, and I think it should stay that way - without pressing in any other way advocacy not to use Linux brand in association with Ubuntu.

And I think you aim too high with your target auditory. You need to get students, teachers, intelligent people at your side first. Rest of crowd will follow them.


I'm not advocating a purge of the L word from all documentation. However, I am advocating that we drop it from public marketing materials, product packaging, and all introductory documents. We can continue to describe it in Appendices and other reference material. We can even glow and rave about it there :)


I have to wonder how many people using Windows know what version of Windows they are using.


Hahahahaha! That's funny...

No really, it is, because 9 out of 10 people I have fixed computers for can't distinguish XP/Vista/7 from each other.


is to drop the L word on websites promoting software.

Usually on a multi-platform website you'll see, Windows Mac and Linux compatibility. Though very true and valid, this re-enforces the Linux Branding.

We need to start promoting Ubuntu as the 3rd OS as a whole. It's not that Linux software works on Ubuntu. It should be promoted as Ubuntu Software that happens to be compatible with "linux"

Obviously this would be a giant hurdle. Especially re-focusing the branding of compatibility of 3rd party developers.

Maybe this topic needs further discussion....



There should be no compatibility list, as much as there should be no multi-platform website… Either the website/hardware vendor/… is supported by Linux (and I mean the kernel) and there is no need to advertise it; because it will "just work" (furthermore not only on Ubuntu OS but also on Debian OS and Fedora OS). Or it doesn't and it's no free software.

The strongest argument in our Linux-based OSes (or more honestly said: Linux+libc+GNU+X11+Gnome/KDE+Firefox+… based OSes) is free software: the fact that the complete software collection is readily available, directly in OS-integrated tools and GUIs.


"Usually on a multi-platform website you'll see, Windows Mac and Linux compatibility. "

A .tar.gz file posted on a website is not compatible with my usage of Linux.

I'd love to see "Compatible with Windows XP and newer, Mac OSX, Ubuntu, Debian, and Fedora. Repositories compatible with your package manager are available here."

I wish that people would see that not all users are bound to a single operating system. We need more advocates for the users, regardless of what brand they run.

I agree that the term "Linux" is misused a lot, and the names of the distributions should be what's marketed.


"It should be promoted as Ubuntu Software that happens to be compatible with "linux" "

What a statement. This is saying that the "Part" (e.g. Ubuntu) is more important the "Hole" (GNU/Linux based systems). GNU/Linux based systems where around before Ubuntu came and if someday Ubuntu goes away they will continue to be around.

Do you say that petrol makes BMW cars run, and it happens to make other combustion engine cars run to?


That would be a grave error with regard other distros. If software is targetted at one distro above all others, that would be the end of things.


I might like the end of things, depending on what "things" would end ;)

If it spelled the end of a 1% market share for free operating systems in favour of a 50% market share, that wouldn't be so catastrophic.

And if 50% market share scares too many people, just think of the great opportunities to fork when we hit that level.


I agree with you. Android getting more and more popularity drop L word. That's
why only geeks and advocates know about it. I think the same will apply to Meego.


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