OK, I'm a sucker for the melodramatics, and I got goose bumps on August 15, 2000. I was sitting in the most unlikely place for this to occur -- the pressroom at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in San Jose, CA. At the podium was Sun Microsystems' Marco Boerries. What caused the shiver to run up my spine was the fact that he was talking about how his company was about to dump its venerable CDE in favor of the GNOME desktop.
OK, I’m a sucker for the melodramatics, and I got goose bumps on August 15, 2000. I was sitting in the most unlikely place for this to occur — the pressroom at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in San Jose, CA. At the podium was Sun Microsystems’ Marco Boerries. What caused the shiver to run up my spine was the fact that he was talking about how his company was about to dump its venerable CDE in favor of the GNOME desktop.
Then, Hewlett Packard got up and announced pretty much the same thing. I thought to myself, “The big guys are finally getting it; the open source community is setting the new Unix standards, and they’re adopting them.” It was fantastic!
Of course, the Linux community has known, or at least sensed, that this has been going on for years. But, this was a momentous occasion for all of open source. CDE was developed very much in the old-school Unix way — by big companies like Sun, HP, and IBM. They would get together under the auspices of a standards organization (here the Open Software Foundation), bicker about technical issues, finally agree on a standard, and then go home to implement CDE in their own separate ways.
In an otherwise pedestrian LinuxWorld trade show, the GNOME announcement was the one spark of excitement. The mainstream media picked up on it with its usual tenacity and, with its usual predictability, played the foundation’s creation as a charge against Windows. “Linux Backers Plan Assault On Microsoft” screamed the New York Times headline.
It felt great to hear the folks at Sun and HP talking about their plans to take over the world. Sun’s Boerries even brought up plans to integrate CDE with the GNOME environment…
And that’s where the bloom came off. I’m a Linux user. And, while integrating CDE with GNOME is well and good, I care a lot more about Linux’s other popular desktop, KDE. Where exactly did the KDE developers fit into all of this?
Well, nowhere really. According to Red Hat Chairman Bob Young, this was by choice. After all, what fun would it be for the KDE team to sit on the sidelines while a bunch of corporate mucky-mucks went on and on about GNOME’s greatness? “The KDE guys were not going to come to an event that had Compaq, Sun, and HP all endorsing GNOME,” Young told me. “We can’t help the fact that they’re going to be disappointed.”
But I was disappointed too. Not because KDE isn’t part of the GNOME foundation, but because the announcement talked about CDE interoperability but mentioned nothing about making GNOME work with KDE.
The way the announcement happened, I got the feeling that the GNOME folks saw KDE as some sort of crazy relative — the kind you’d see in a 1930s film, locked out of sight in a dark attic room. It was as if the flash and dazzle of their truly groundbreaking announcement would somehow distract the rest of the world from the fact that KDE is a vibrant and popular development project.
GNOME’s PR success really underlines a couple of failings in the KDE team. For one thing, they don’t have a de Icaza. Miguel de Icaza has done a wonderful job as the figurehead of the GNOME project. His greatest accomplishment has been articulating his vision of where GNOME is going and why developers and users should care about it. Nobody does this as effectively for KDE. The other failing of KDE is its underestimation of the importance of public perception. Users count. And, while developing great technology can be a joy in itself, projects without users really aren’t that much fun. By presenting a united front, the GNOME foundation is going to bring new users to its environment. No question about it.
The problem is, whether the GNOME Foundation likes it or not, KDE is still a major presence in the Linux community. Leaving them out of the discussion in a PR campaign aimed at presenting a unified open source desktop(remember, this is about more than Linux; HP-UX and Solaris are involved now) only invites a public perception disaster. The first hint of how this might play out came three days after the Foundation announcement; KDE developer Kurt Granroth threw down the gauntlet, taking GNOME to task for being too closely tied to corporate interests. “If we were to prostitute ourselves to big-money for the chance of being a media-recognized standard, we would be stomping on all the people that have supported, developed, and used KDE throughout the years,” he wrote.
Now KDE is apparently on the brink of launching its own foundation-type organization. So, the stage is set for the Linux desktop wars. Great — just what we all needed. We saw this before with the Qt licensing debate, and it isn’t pretty.
The worst part of all of this is that there is a way for KDE and GNOME to live together. If the two project’s development teams would just get together and work out underlying services (things like drag and drop and component reuse), the two windowing environments could be held up as shining examples of the strength and diversity of the Linux operating system. But, the terms of the debate have already been set. GNOME says it is unifying the user interface. KDE says GNOME is selling out.
Granroth told me he “regretted” sending the Slashdot post the day after it went up. I don’t blame him. Unless someone refocuses this debate onto the issues that matter to users, it’s just a matter of time before we start seeing the mainstream media portray this as an example of the bickering and balkanization that ruined Unix. I’ll say it again: Public perception counts. The author of the New York Times story I referred to at the beginning of this column is under the impression that there is something called the “GNOME Linux operating system.” Where do you think KDE fits in that worldview?
Miguel de Icaza has done a wonderful job in managing the GNOME project, and the GNOME Foundation is an important step in the evolution of Linux. Corporate involvement will be an important factor in the growth of Linux (name a kernel hacker who doesn’t work for a company that has a stake in Linux), and the GNOME Foundation had the right idea in presenting a united front for the open source desktop.
It’s just too bad they had such a weak story for uniting the Linux part of that equation.
Robert McMillan is executive editor for Linux Magazine He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.