Comment: Not Your Garden-Variety GNOME

By now, anyone following Linux news knows about Computer Associates, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and the truckload of others bleating how much they all love Linux. Hidden among all these commercial vendors discovering the free software community, we also have the opposite.

By now, anyone following Linux news knows about Computer Associates, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and the truckload of others bleating how much they all love Linux. Hidden among all these commercial vendors discovering the free software community, we also have the opposite. For the first time ever, a free software project is using commercial marketing techniques.

The subject is GNOME, a Linux desktop designed to ease GUI development, simplify communications between applications, and offer a consistent look and feel. The technology behind GNOME is actually quite good. But what makes it most interesting is its active publicity campaign run jointly by Red Hat and the Free Software Foundation (FSF).

Unlike most other free software projects, GNOME has laboured under the shadow of another Linux desktop for most of its development life: K Desktop Environment, or simply KDE. While the two differ in design philosophy -- KDE is a little simpler, GNOME a little more flexible -- they work similarly for most users. But KDE has a considerable head start on GNOME; it was drawing attention as an easy-to-use Linux front-end in 1997. Quite stable and now in its 1.1 release, KDE forms the graphical base for two Linux distributions, Caldera and SuSE. And Corel has suggested that its future Linux desktop will likely start with a KDE core.

While KDE has always been free software, its underlying libraries, known as Qt, were not completely so at the start. Developers of free software could use Qt as much as they wanted, but commercial developers were required to have a license and pay royalties.

This arrangement wasn't free enough for many freeware purists, so a totally free project took shape to supplant Qt. This project, called GNOME, came to be managed by the FSF, which had taken the greatest objection to Qt's lack of sufficient freedom. Qt's commercial license became a non-issue when its developers opensourced it in November. But in some corners of the GNOME world, people feel the need for GNOME to surpass KDE in popularity, as well as a need for Red Hat to catch up graphically to the other distributions. And that's where the hype machine comes in.

Until now, new releases of free software have been quietly announced in a number of well-known channels, the most popular being the freshmeat Web site. Everything from Apache to Samba to the Linux kernel itself use such low-key channels, passively letting the community decide for itself if new software is worth using.

Not so for GNOME. At LinuxWorld, its developers used a tactic until now reserved for the commercial software vendors so hated by the FSF. The 1.0 version of GNOME was rush-released before it was ready in order to maximise media coverage at the show. Red Hat printed lots of glossy brochures that made GNOME look like a Red Hat-created product, making no mention at all of its FSF birthplace or its suitability on non-Red Hat distributions.

The climax of the campaign was a press conference where the Red Hat representative needed to frequently interject to keep FSF leader Richard Stallman and GNOME leader Miguel de Icaza from making fools of themselves. Both developers saw the media scrum as a great soapbox for their political agendas, while Red Hat just wanted to push a product.

In the short term, the tactics worked. Members of the media who were new to Linux and didn't know any better wrote about GNOME as if Linux had never seen a GUI before. GNOME developers were quoted as saying that it was the first desktop built on free software, many months after Qt had opened up. But those who live by the media blitz can also be sunk that that way. Because it was rush-released for LinuxWorld, GNOME 1.0 undid its hype by being almost impossible for anyone but a propellerhead to install. The Linux Loungehas already seen its share of GNOME installation headaches. Far from being easier to use than KDE, as its proponents claim, this early release has turned into a nightmare for some. Increasing numbers of frustrated Red Hat users are switching to the Mandrake distribution which integrates a Red Hat base with a KDE face.

Sometime in the future, likely some months after its spin doctors will have proclaimed GNOME 1.0 fit for public consumption, it will shake off its quirks and indeed become something widely usable. Since both GNOME and KDE are free software, they can steal each other's ideas. And the competition will be beneficial to all Linux users in a manner unheard-of in the commercial software world.

But one really must wonder what has been gained by anyone from free software's ill-advised foray into the world of slick. Best to stick to freshmeat next time.

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