Gnome Linux to attack Windows

Can Linux make a run at Windows on the desktop? Some computer heavyweights will give it a try

A high-profile group of companies is expected to back the Gnome Linux interface as a serious competitor to Windows on desktop systems. But if history is a guide, even the support of companies including Sun Microsystems, Compaq and IBM might not be enough to make a significant dent in the Windows world.

Gnome (GNU Network Object Model Environment) is in a battle with KDE (K Desktop Environment) for dominance among Linux desktop interfaces, both aiming to make the underlying operating system more user-friendly.

Gnome (pronounced Guh-Nome) already has momentum behind it. It is bundled with just about every major Linux distribution, as well as with some Unix flavours, including Berkeley Standard Distribution (BSD). And some open source software developers also use Gnome as a software development framework.

This week, according to a report published in the New York Times, a number of top computer hardware vendors are going to throw their weight behind Gnome as well.

Among the companies slated to announce their support for Gnome at a press conference Tuesday at LinuxWorld in San Jose, California, are Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun. The group will call itself the Gnome Foundation.

Compaq, HP and IBM are expected to say they will offer Gnome as the standard interface on the versions of Linux that they preload on Linux desktops, laptops and handhelds. Sun is rumoured to be willing to make Gnome its default interface for its Solaris operating system over time.

On Tuesday, the Gnome Foundation is also expected to announce that it is adopting the open source version of Sun's StarOffice desktop applications suite and will turn it into Gnome Office, confirmed sources close to Sun.

Gnome Office will be based on a future, more componentised version of StarOffice. That will allow users to pick and choose among elements, such as a thesaurus component or email component, and embed them in their future user interfaces and interface-based applications.

The hardware vendors did not respond for requests to comment on their Gnome plans. Dell and Gateway also did not respond.

Another company expected to back Gnome in a major way is Helix Code. The software developer is charged with helping commercialise the Gnome Linux desktop, which is developed by the Gnome Project as part of the GNU. GNU stands for GNU's Not Unix, a collection of Unix-compatible software developed and maintained by the Free Software Foundation. GNU is distributed freely or at a nominal cost under the GNU General Public Licence.

Helix sells Helix Gnome through its channel partners, and earlier this month, announced a set of graphical administration tools for Linux and Unix.

The idea of creating a common user environment that would give Microsoft some real Windows competition is hardly a new one.

In the early 1990s, a number of Unix vendors including IBM, HP and Sun attempted to build up the Common Desktop Environment (CDE) as an agreed-upon front end. But the fragmentation that has plagued the Unix industry as a whole also ended up weakening the CDE effort considerably.

Sun currently touts CDE as its default Solaris interface. And other Unix makers such as IBM also offer CDE as a built-in part of their current Unix distributions.

But CDE never rose up to create a truly common user interface around which software vendors could rally. And it definitely never emerged as the formidable challenge to the Windows user interface that its creators originally had envisioned.

CDE also never gained acceptance from the Linux community.

Open source may become Microsoft's newest strategic weapon. But by even hinting at the possibility of a portable, standardised, open-source reference implementation of C# and CLI, Microsoft has thrown a very large, very hot spud right into Sun's hands. Stephan Somogyi reckons this is going to be mighty fun to watch. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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