Gnome/KDE shoot out a hoax?

Sometimes the public doesn't want to see winners so much as it wants to seelosers. It's this depressing taste for confrontation and humiliation that seems to be behind the recent news about the open source world's two favorite graphical interfaces.

My personal theory about the current crop of 'reality' shows is that the viewing public doesn't want to see winners so much as it wants to see losers. Would anyone be watching that Survivor crud if people weren't getting voted off each week? I don't think so.

It's the same depressing public taste for confrontation and humiliation that seems to be behind much of the recent news about the open source world's two favorite graphical interfaces, GNOME and KDE.

I originally greeted the news of the GNOME Foundation with a similar sense of indigestion as I experienced when the Open Software Foundation (OSF) was formed about a dozen years ago. The similarities are staggering: a bunch of industry heavyweights getting together to draw battle lines over a graphical interface.

Back then it was the OSF -- made up of IBM, HP, Digital (now Compaq) -- and its Motif GUI, which eventually triumphed in a war of attrition with the Open Look interface championed by Sun and AT&T. I look at the GNOME news and see the same names -- Compaq, IBM, HP, and Sun -- this time all on the same side. And just what do they expect to accomplish here?

If it ain't broke...
What was so broken within GNOME that it needed a Foundation to fix? How badly do the GNOME developers want to take the advice of the companies who collectively championed Motif, and then its mutant offspring CDE, as what the world should use for a desktop?

I know these companies mean well and all, but let's not kill GNOME with kindness. It was moving in the right direction before all these nice people came along and I hope the developers follow their instincts. They're on the right track and I hope they don't get derailed.

While the Foundation's real purpose may be to dispense advice that can (and most probably should) be politely ignored, I'm more concerned at the way Sun's intentions were rolled out, and fear that the road to hell is being paved by Sun and GNOME's other well-intentioned bandwagon jumpers.

First there was the announcement that Sun would be putting StarOffice under the GPL and porting it to the GNOME Gtk widget set. Fair enough, they had to pick something, and as StarOffice was written in C it probably made more sense to use Gtk than the KDE/Qt approach which required the C++ language. Besides, if it were open sourced and really significant, StarOffice could also be ported to KDE -- putting code under the GPL means you can do that kind of thing if the demand and will exists.

"We did have to make a choice, and we chose GNOME for a number of reasons," said John Heard, manager of architecture and strategy for Sun's Webtop and applications group. "But Sun will support KDE, and we will help the KDE team port StarOffice if the need arises." Heard also said Sun would support any efforts at closer cooperation between KDE and GNOME.

Taking sides
So much for the reality of the situation. Unfortunately, the demand for a loser arose, fittingly in the middle of Survivor season. First we had that Internet answer to British tabloids, the Register, trying to evoke fighting words from Sun and a KDE rebuttal (headline: "We're not scared") on the same day. Shortly after came the GNOME Foundation hype-a-thon at LinuxWorld as well as Sun's announcement that GNOME would be its future desktop, and folks all over the place lost no time declaring GNOME victorious and KDE a loser. Some KDE fans fired loud return volleys and others were simply content to play war correspondent. Even Mac commentators got into the fray, but maybe that's to be expected since they've always been used to having no choice of GUI.

But what's the point of it all? The sanest heads have advocated calm, and the KDE team's official comment on the matter said it best:

None of it matters.

Indeed. We don't need to define losers or even winners. These are the battle cries of the Unix warriors, come to play out the same tired skirmishes on Linux turf, marshalled by commercially-bred mind sets which hold that competition must result in victory and defeat. That mind set isn't just unhelpful, it's harmful. The open source community needs to see beyond the puffed-up wars and the public spectacle of it all. We need not heed the call to arms.

Linux is and always has been about choice. Someone who uses Linux in a world otherwise dominated by the likes of Microsoft has already made a statement that choice is important. Why should we be in so much of a rush to eliminate the choice of Linux GUI? Why must one size fit all?

GNOME and KDE have different philosophical approaches to many issues that play out in very different ways. GNOME wants to take a methodical, highly structured approach that will have all the pieces fall into place in the most elegant fashion. KDE is more interested in being fast and nimble, releasing sooner, and (for instance) choosing the lightweight Kparts component system over GNOME's more standard, more flexible, but also more complex and bloated CORBA-based approach.

I'm too greedy. I don't want one to beat the other. I want both to keep driving each other forward, so that they keep making each other better. Given the development pace of Eazel's Nautilus and KDE's Konqueror, both KDE and GNOME will soon surpass both Windows and Macintosh GUIs in sheer usability.

Purity parity
And recently the news got even better. The decision by Trolltech this week to release its Qt library (core to KDE) under the GNU Public License is an incredibly significant and welcome piece of news that helps to deflate the emotional element. Now there are no more issues of licensing religion to separate GNOME and KDE, Debian has no reason not to ship with KDE, and software purists must now compare the two desktops on their merits. What a concept.

(One could even argue that the Qt license, being under the "full" GPL rather than the "lesser" GPL used by GNOME's Gtk, is now closer to the Free Software Foundation's ideals than the GNOME project it calls its own. But that would be splitting hairs, eh?)

As the emotions inevitably calm down, people will realize that what desktop Linux needs, far more than winners and losers, is applications.

Sure, both GUIs need some serious usability improvements. But I already see that happening, especially since Eazel joined the scene, and I'm looking forward to the imminent release of KDE release 2. What Linux really needs is a broader range of apps across the board, especially the kind of personal software such as Quicken and Maximizer that just don't have matches in the open source world. Another area in which Linux really lags is educational stuff and indeed anything targeted at an age level below that of open source programmers.

Perhaps as apps vendors digest the fact that the installed base of Linux desktops will soon surpass that of the Mac (if it hasn't already), more will come around. Of course these vendors have to contend with the mentality of some Linux users that all apps should be free since the OS is -- but that will also diminish over time if the truly unique and hard-to-duplicate apps get ported. Of course, making Wine easier to use -- so that Linux users could easily install native Windows apps -- would be a good resource as well. But that's just a stopgap.

To their credit open source developers, by and large, have ignored the battle analyses and just kept coding -- and that's good news for all of us. For as Linux gets better, as GNOME and KDE keep pushing each other, as open source desktops continue to increase in popularity and attract more applications, we all win and nobody loses.

Except Microsoft. And perhaps those who look for losers.