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A plain, unadulterated X terminal can be a pretty harsh experience for just about anyone. For open source users, the situation has improved dramatically since the late ’90s, with the formation of the KDE (K Desktop Environment) project in 1996 and GNOME (GNU Network Object Model Environment) in 1997. Not only have the two been fierce competitors for attention within the open source OS markets of Linux and BSD, but they have both evolved well enough to rival not only their commercial Unix counterparts, but the GUI environments of consumer desktop systems as well.

Why two, roughly equally well-respected and supported, open source desktops? In a word, philosophy technical and otherwise- KDE is built with C++, while GNOME’s developers chose to forego the purely object-oriented approach and coded their libraries in C. They ultimately created the Bonobo component system, based on CORBA (Common Object Request Broker Architecture), to enhance GNOME’s modularity without the need for C++. GNOME’s founders took some interesting shortcuts to launch the desktop environment just a few months after the original August 1997 announcement. Several of GNOME’s key components were actually born in The GIMP, the open source image- processing program which predates the GNU desktop environment. GIMP code was repurposed and generalized to create the GTK+ GUI toolkit and parts of GNOME’s rendering system, for example.

Programming language overshadowed by licensing language

But programming language issues have sometimes been overshadowed by licensing language issues. Because KDE was built on Trolltech’s Qt GUI toolkit, at the time a closed-source program, developers and users from the Free Software Foundation school of thought were disappointed in KDE’s inherently non-free nature. So GNOME was launched to join the other GNU software projects created purely under the GPL. In late 1998, Trolltech released Qt under a custom open source license, but its restrictions did not impress the GNU and GNOME crowd. Recently, Trolltech added GPL to the Qt license scheme, and the next major version of KDE is rebuilt on the GPL Qt system, putting it on equal legal footing with GNOME.

Kurt Granroth, an official KDE developer and evangelist, believes that the issue was and still is largely one of semantics and emotions among a relatively small population. "Even without Qt being GPL, we managed to attract millions of users and hundreds of developers," he says. "Really, while the license issue was always the ‘loudest’ issue, it was rarely a factor in people choosing between KDE and GNOME."

Caldera committed to KDE, however GNOME is still a possiblity

As for commercial adoption, most major Linux distributions ship with both KDE and GNOME, although Caldera and Corel both standardize on KDE alone. "Caldera integrated KDE because it proved early on that it was the only solution for Linux on the desktop," says Erik Hughes, director of product management at Caldera Systems, Inc., of Orem, Utah.

Caldera has already committed to the beta release of KDE 2.0 in its 2.4 kernel "preview" version, but GNOME is not permanently frozen out of Caldera products. "We are open to inclusion of other graphical environments, if that’s what customers require," he says.

Sun indicates ultimate replacement of CDE on Solaris with GNOME others possible to follow

Both GNOME and KDE can be deployed on most Unix systems, as well as Linux and BSD. That flexibility is starting to bear fruit, particularly for GNOME. Sun has indicated its intention to ultimately replace CDE on Solaris with GNOME, and HP has been named as a possibility to follow.

Undaunted, KDE is pushing ahead with the imminent release of KDE 2.0. The new version adds updated KOffice applications, including preliminary support for Microsoft Office 2000 documents, as well as Qt Designer, a new GUI design program for developers. The biggest push is for Konqueror, KDE’s hybrid file manager/Web browser that aims to replace not only kfm (the old file manager) and Netscape, but scads of document viewers as well, since Konqueror can open various filetypes within its own frames.

While KDE’s development still appears to be a fairly monolithic arrangement, the younger GNOME has attracted the attention of a more diverse corporate community. The long-term effects of the GNOME Foundation, which brings GNOME developers together with the likes of Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Sun, and VA Linux, remain to be seen as the Foundation has not opened for business yet. Closer to home, ventures such as Eazel and Helix Code (the latter co-founded by project father Miguel de Icaza) are pushing for their own vision of the open -source desktop of the future.

From a desktop into an Internet-enabled beast

According to Helix Code CEO and co-founder Nat Friedman, his company’s mission is to convert the notion of the desktop into a fully Internet-enabled beast. Friedman’s 40 developers work on Helix GNOME, an offshoot of the main distribution that features automated online updates from the company’s Web site, as well as Evolution, the company’s open source e-mail/organizer application that will be the basis for most of the live content. Cambridge, Mass.-based Helix Code plans to offer its data subscription services early next year.

Helix Code’s services sound suspiciously similar to the types of free benefits offered to the likes of My Yahoo! users. But Friedman says there’s a difference. "You can’t build real applications online," he says. "Our model here is we look at a Web service currently offered and making money. Does this make ten times more sense built in on the desktop?"

In the face of industry efforts to make a Web browser the only end-user facing application, in essence making the browser act as the desktop, Friedman says there’s a better solution. "The desktop should be the browserthat’s the right way to do it."

Eazel, Inc. to also shape future of GNOME

Another commercial venture looking to shape the future of GNOME is Eazel, Inc., formed by some of the design visionaries behind the original Macintosh. "We think that Linux can become a much more popular system on the desktop," says Bud Tribble, VP of engineering. "One of the things that needs to happen is it does have to become easier to use and operate."

Enter Eazel’s open source Nautilus file manager, scheduled to become a standard component of GNOME in the upcoming 1.4 release of the environment. "The philosophy is to do a better job than has been done in the past at helping a user get complete access to all their filesnot only on their system, but information and content on the Web as well, and to integrate in a set of services that might be thought of as system admin chores," says Tribble.

Like Helix Code, Eazel plans to subsist on as yet unnamed subscription services designed to make life with Linux easier for the common user. Tribble compares Eazel’s business model to AOL’sboth give away their client software far and wide, in an effort to attract users to sign up for online services.

GNOME should benefit from a major bounce in both publicity and functionality when OpenOffice, the open-source edition of Sun’s StarOffice, becomes the core of GNOME’s office suite. The current GNOME Office is a rather loosely knit collection of independently developed productivity applications, while OpenOffice benefits from years of professional development as well as ongoing efforts from Sun.

KDE has made multiple claims to having a majority share of Linux desktop users, usually around sixty to seventy percent. Friedman dismisses those claims as inadequately researched, pointing out that even Helix Code cannot be sure how many Helix GNOME users there are because the software can be and is mirrored elsewhere. "I suspect there are several million GNOME users," says Friedman.

Because there is such little precedent for a truly mass-distribution X-based desktop, both GNOME and KDE are in a continual state of flux, trying to find the right mix of intuitive user interface, bundled applications, and bells and whistles. "Essentially, KDE will never be done," says Granroth. Not long ago, the GNOME project switched to a different default window manager, essentially changing the initial face new GNOME users are presented. Considering that Microsoft has used more or less the same front-end for five years and counting, such a move is nothing short of dramatic.

Although users can still get by without either KDE or GNOME and stick with standard X, Granroth says that the days for fence-sitters are running out. Because a growing number of developers are enamored with the advanced GUI and OS interface tools offered by a full-fledged desktop environment, "if you want to run anything remotely new, installing them is a requirement." Sooner or later, users will have to choose their desktop weapon in order to survive.

Jason Compton is an Evanston, Ill.-based technology journalist. He is a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune, Linux Magazine, and Smart Business.

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