LinuxWorld: Linux readies its desktop assault

Linux' fledgling efforts to challenge Windows for the desktop market received another shot in the arm Wednesday afternoon, thanks to the official release of Gnome 1.0.

Gnome -- pronounced with a hard "G" -- is a project developed by the Free Software Foundation that attempts to put a friendly face on an operating system that, so far, appeals mainly to tech-savvy users. It features a user interface similar to Windows or the Mac OS and is open-source software, meaning anyone can alter or improve the code.

Gnome -- in conjunction with KDE, another interface project, and Wine, an emulator that lets people run Windows applications on Linux -- could boost the operating system's use among consumers and, potentially, launch Linux onto the Windows-dominated desktop market.

Currently, many people consider KDE more advanced than Gnome, but Gnome is expected to make headway with Wednesday's release. On Tuesday, Corel, a major desktop player, pledged support for Wine. However, Linux's prospects on the desktop depend on several factors including the number of applications available for the platform and distribution deals to get software such as Gnome and KDE into the hands of users.

Linux distributor Red Hat is handing out disks that include Gnome, and others are expected to in the future. Meanwhile, companies such as Caldera and Corel have expressed support for KDE.

About 250 developer/hobbyists have been working on Gnome for the past 18 months, according to project leader Miguel de Icaza. Red Hat Inc. created a special lab early last year to work on the project. "It's another piece of the puzzle in getting Linux to the end-user," said Bill Peterson, an analyst with International Data Corp. "If you make the front-end of Linux look just like Windows, it's not so much of a reach." Gnome lets users perform tasks such as dragging and dropping icons and contains a feature known as themes, which allows people to tailor the interface to more closely resemble Windows, the Mac OS, or any other platform they dream up.

It also supports 17 different languages and is about to be deployed in thousands of schools throughout Mexico. So far, the Linux OS has largely been confined to the server market. "We also want to go to the desktops of people who are not experts in computers," de Icaza said.

Future versions will include support for Palm handheld and calendar applications, de Icaza said. They will also include any other features the disparate group of developers -- who collaborate through e-mail -- deem worthy of the project.

Because the software is constantly evolving, users visiting the Gnome site will have access to the latest version. "You no longer have to depend on the schedule of a company to get the fixes," said de Icaza, in a jab at Microsoft Corp.

Free-software legend Richard Stallman led the press conference detailing Gnome's features.

Stallman planted the seeds for the software now commonly called Linux with his GNU project in the early '80s ... and bristles when people refer to open source only as Linux and chastised a reporter for doing so.

Gnome is available for download at www.gnu.organd www.gnome.org.

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