Are CDE and Motif Linux roadkill?

We already know that Linux is changing the rules all over the computing world. Little by little, Linux and open source software is making its presence felt
Written by Evan Leibovitch, Contributor

As must occasionally happen, such gains must come at the expense of other technologies. And it's an interesting exercise to try to research and predict what specific commercial technologies will become victims of the open source movement.

At the top of my list of early casualties are the Motif graphics library and the Common Desktop Environment (CDE), which is built on Motif.

Not that they'll go quickly or quietly, mind you. Both technologies have monied backers who will defend them as part of the "official" Unix standard (as defined by the owners of the Unix trademark).

But the writing on the root window is clear; these technologies are comatose at best. The Motif FAQ page hasn't changed since April of last year. And the Motif Zone, an e-zine supposedly dedicated to Motif development, features plenty of Linux stuff but its most recent Motif-specific news is almost a year old.

A search on freshmeat for Motif apps turned up a whopping 41 matches, many of which don't actually use Motif -- they just claim to work like it. Compare this to entire sections of freshmeat dedicated to hundreds of apps written to the two main graphics libraries used in Linux, Gtk and Qt. The only CDE-specific application I could find was one that converts your CDE configuration for use by KDE.

Am I doing a disservice to Motif because I'm only on freshmeat, and overlooking commercial sources? Go ahead, do a conventional search on "Motif applications" and you'll find plenty of links to app-builder tools, extra-cost widget sets, but precious little when it comes to the apps themselves.

In Motif and CDE we have two technologies that offer a microcosm of what's always been wrong with commercial Unix.

Motif was born and adopted not because it was anything wonderful in itself, but as the result of a defensive move by IBM, Hewlett-Packard and DEC. The three companies, responding to the "Open Look" standard being advanced by Sun and AT&T in the mid-80's, formed the Open Software Foundation (OSF) to develop an alternate desktop.

Eventually, OSF (which had been licensing Motif to most Unix vendors, and eventually to Sun and AT&T too) became part of the X/Open standards body which has since evolved into what is somewhat pompously named The Open Group (TOG). TOG endorsed Motif and CDE as part of the Unix standard, while being the sole supplier of Motif and CDE technology.

Maybe I'm being overly cynical, but I've always had a problem with some of the ethics of an organisation which not only defines a standard, but also sells pieces of the only implementation of the standard.

Suffice it to say that the open source world, which is orders of magnitude more open than the world of so-called "open systems," never bought into Motif or CDE. Oh sure, you can buy Motif and/or CDE from companies such as Xi Graphics or MetroLink, but it's quite fair to say that the TOG stuff has never caught on in this world. Red Hat once sold CDE, but now it doesn't even turn up in a search on their Web site.

No matter. As far as I can tell, Motif isn't missed. Anyone who really needs to run Motif apps on open source operating systems can try LessTif, an unauthorised free software clone. But LessTif is still considered a compatibility tool rather than a foundation for new products -- new software projects use Gtk or Qt. And as for CDE, its fans have plenty of free alternatives. KDE has many CDE-like features, and the lightweight XFce environment resembles CDE even more than KDE.

Certainly Chris Blizzard doesn't miss Motif. He's involved in the Mozilla project and has helped oversee its transition away from using Motif. Mozilla is the foundation for the next generation of the Netscape Web browser, currently the most-popular Motif-based application. But that's changing -- Mozilla, for Linux and all other X Windows based platforms, is now being made with Gtk.

"There's not a lot of serious development under Motif anymore," Blizzard said. "It's pretty stagnant. If you look at what's out there on the desktop, Linux has overrun Unix in sheer numbers, and that's where the code is targeting. The open source toolkits have achieved parity."

Not everyone agrees. Gary Tyreman of x.org said Motif is still widely deployed. "Many of the ISVs using Motif haven't yet made Linux strategies," Tyreman said. "And these companies don't want to fracture development."

Still, that applies to existing companies whose desktop applications are the remnants from commercial Unix's unsuccessful attempt at taking on Microsoft for desktop dominance. But those companies represent the old-guard vendors, who never succeeded in making a Unix desktop environment that would compete successfully against Microsoft. While there's no guarantee that Linux will overtake Windows on the desktop, it's already come further than any Unix ever did. Anything new appears to use the freeware toolkits, or is aimed at the enterprise market where commercial Unix is retrenching amidst competition from both Microsoft and Linux.

And where is TOG in all this? I tried for more than a week to talk to TOG's Motif expert, but my phone calls and emails went unanswered. A shame, too, for I really don't want to appear to be to hard on TOG; many people there have the right intentions. I just happen to feel they're bogged down in bureaucracy and an old commercial mind set, and are having a very hard time coping with the changing market and truly open systems.

It's good to hear that TOG is working with the Linux Standard Base group to harmonise -- if not merge -- Linux and Unix standards. Andrew Josey, who's probably done more to drag TOG into the realities of Linux than anyone else, will be presenting a talk on this subject at LinuxWorld this week.

I hope the work bears fruit and I will report on it at a later time. For Motif and CDE, it's too late. Even though I'm told that Motif itself will be open sourced one of these days, it's far too little, too late. Let's not miss the boat twice.

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