No Red Scare

I just finished reading yet another Slashdot thread in which various GNOME and KDE zealots argue with each other. This most recent thread was about the way that Red Hat has packaged the popular desktop environments for their up-coming "Null" release. Evidently, Red Hat is providing themes for GNOME and KDE that make both desktop environments look very, very similar to each other. Both camps are unhappy and irate at Red Hat, and both sides are fuming about dilution and misappropriation.

I just finished reading yet another Slashdot thread in which various GNOME and KDE zealots argue with each other. This most recent thread was about the way that Red Hat has packaged the popular desktop environments for their up-coming “Null” release. Evidently, Red Hat is providing themes for GNOME and KDE that make both desktop environments look very, very similar to each other. Both camps are unhappy and irate at Red Hat, and both sides are fuming about dilution and misappropriation.

I have to admit that I laud Red Hat’s efforts. Red Hat is attempting to make the desktop technology choice irrelevant. They’re trying to provide a common and intuitive user interface that hides the complex and confusing aspects of Linux. Clearly, they’d like to see more copies of Red Hat Linux running on corporate, home, and academic desktops. Indeed, their future as a public company probably depends on it.

Having watched the progress of “desktop” Linux from the early days, I was hardly surprised by the comments on Slashdot. It’s the same old story: a debate of religion.

But this time I saw the situation in a different light: I saw the on-going saga as evidence of the current and future success of Mac OS X. Red Hat appears to be working hard to accomplish what Apple has already achieved.

But, Apple ‘gets’ it. In OS X, Apple has created a desktop that “just works” without giving up on any of Unix. And I think it’s safe to say that a lot of Open Source folks “get Apple.”

For Linux to become a mainstream operating system in a world of non-techies, “getting it” has to happen for Linux, or at least for Red Hat Linux. However, Apple has already cracked that nut. They’ve provided an intuitive and easy to learn user interface that “just works” without sacrificing the powerful Unix infrastructure underneath. Their recent “Jaguar” (Mac OS X 10.2) release makes OS X even more compelling.

Moreover, Apple has gone a step further by providing developers with tools and powerful APIs for building applications. Their suite of refined tools and APIs makes it easy for anyone to build an application for OS X. One doesn’t have to decide between Qt or GTK, GNOME or KDE, etc. The result is that new OS X applications — commercial, shareware, freeware, and Open Source — are appearing rapidly.

What does all this say about the future of Linux? Has the Unix desktop already been lost to Apple? Is Linux destined to be primarily a server operating system?

It’s hard to say. The forte of Open Source developers is solving technical problems, but some of the fundamental problems that Linux faces on the desktop battle aren’t technical in nature. They’re political. Compared to a company like Red Hat or Apple, decentralized groups have to work a lot harder to come to a consensus.

Will Red Hat ultimately try to forge that consensus? Can that work in the Open Source community where choice is fundamental?

I think it can work, but it’ll be a bumpy ride. Red Hat is working very hard to create a unified product out of the best Open Source projects, but not all developers like having their work modified and packaged by Red Hat — or anyone else for that matter. But if Linux is to succeed on the desktop, fit and finish needs to happen. I hope developers will see past their initial anger and realize that efforts like Red Hat’s are ultimately good for Linux.

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Jeremy Zawodny


Senior Editor

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