Gnome and KDE: Open source gets bloody

Open source backers may aspire to a world in which software rivalries are a thing of the past. But at least for now, there's an undeniable rift forming within the ranks

For a war that supposedly isn't, the battle over open source desktops seems to be getting bloodier.

It's Gnome vs KDE. And even though many open source backers are loath to admit the existence of a rift within their ranks on any software development front, sides are being taken and two distinct camps are forming.

At the end of last week, a member of the KDE Core Team released a public letter outlining his views on the divergent KDE and Gnome (GNU Network Object Model Environment) efforts.

Not surprisingly, the letter disparages the Gnome work as little more than rewarmed Open Group/Motif and Common Desktop Environment (CDE) standards efforts.

Neither Motif nor CDE managed to attract cohesive backing from Unix developers, which could have led to a single Unix development environment around which developers could have coalesced, the way they did around Windows.

The Gnome desktop gained a major corporate shot in the arm last week, when 13 hardware makers, software vendors and various organisations announced they were throwing their support behind the newly created Gnome Foundation.

The Gnome Foundation is building a complete desktop environment, including an open source user interface, messaging backbone, component infrastructure and file system -- an environment the group hopes to offer as a credible alternative to Microsoft Windows and Office.

In spite of Gnome's new-found support, KDE remains, in terms of market share, the leader in the open source desktop space.

According to Linux developer survey data from Evans Data, KDE was used by 70 percent of Linux developers, Gnome by 64 percent. (Developers were allowed to select more than one developer environment when surveyed.) Motif, CDE, AfterStep and other Unix/Linux desktop environments were far less widely used, according to Evans Data.

Is one desktop environment's gain contingent upon another's loss?

"Remember, even if Gnome does become a great desktop, that doesn't mean that KDE will stop being a great desktop," said KDE team member Kurt Granroth in his letter published on the Linux enthusiast site Slashdot.

"Put another way, KDE will always be around and it will always be a worthwhile desktop to use and platform to develop on."

The backing by Gnome of such Unix stalwarts as Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun Microsystems isn't an instant recipe for success, Granroth continued.

"It has never been shown that throwing more developers on the project will guarantee that the project will succeed, and you can show that it often makes no difference at all. Sun may have a lot of developers, but it remains to be seen if it will matter," he said.

At last week's Gnome press conference at the LinuxWorld trade show in San Jose, participants attempted to paint a picture in which Gnome and KDE could continue to coexist peacefully. Indeed, many of the Gnome Foundation member companies currently offer customers a choice of KDE or Gnome as their desktop operating environments. And KDE 2.0 is due out in late October or early November.

But when pressed at last week's press conference as to whether the Gnome and KDE teams might integrate their open source desktop efforts, Miguel de Icaza, founder of the Gnome project, admitted that the two environments and underlying libraries were incompatible, and thus, unlikely to be integrated.

But realities notwithstanding, some open source idealists still claimed to believe that Gnome and KDE would not be forced to fight to the death.

"It sounds as though the Gnome and KDE teams have a good working relationship, where what counts is the software -- not some dumbass rivalry between the two teams," said one Slashdot poster.

"If only more people realised that to be competitors doesn't mean that one has to do everything within one's power to destroy each other."

It had to be either Gnome or KDE that came up trumps. But as Charles Cooper will point out there are a lot of people who still prefer KDE, and they're not all that thrilled at the news elevating GNOME to the position of first among equals. But the Linux community is making a choice about its best interests -- and that makes entirely good sense. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

Stan Gibson finds it is refreshing, in a perverse sort of way, that the group of GNOMEs has taken a page out of Microsoft's playbook. If you can't win in the market, you can always get a lift by giving it away. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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