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The Sky is NOT Falling

  • August 14, 2000
  • By Dennis E. Powell

The KDE developers mailing list has been abuzz over an article in The New York Times saying that on Thursday IBM, Sun Microsystems, and others will throw their support behind Gnome as the standard Linux desktop.

"Woe is me, all is lost" was the general tenor of the discussion.


It's a good thing whenever big companies with lots of money show an interest, especially a financial interest, in Linux. And it would not be a good thing if by so doing they would get into a position where they could dictate such things as the standard Linux desktop. But they can't.

The guts of the Times story: IBM, Sun, Hewlett-Packard, and some others will establish a thing called the Gnome Foundation. Sun will begin shipping Gnome as the desktop for Solaris. IBM will ship Linux and Gnome on some Thinkpads.

Let's look at this a little. IBM is already offering Red Hat Linux. Hewlett-Packard is already doing things with Red Hat Linux -- look among their downloads and you'll find support for their hardware not on Linux but on Red Hat Linux.

The share prices of Linux distributors that have gone public are not in particularly good shape. The big flow of money into distributors has slowed. Red Hat spent a lot of money on Gnome development. The formation of the Gnome Foundation assures continued support of the project.

But let's step back and put the whole thing into historical perspective. Remember when IBM and Apple joined to produce a wonderful new operating system? Anybody remember it? Anybody remember its name? Anybody ever actually use the thing? How about the wonderful new microkernel architecture that would run on absolutely every processor in the world? It was going to sweep the market, IBM told us seven or eight years ago. How's that project coming along?

Sun bought Star Office and will GPL it. Good. Sun (and IBM) are interested in putting applications on the web; you log in and use them. Given IBM's stated policy, that everything should be written for Java, and the fact that Sun owns Java, even if the Gnome Foundation produces anything, it could well end up being a very pretty Java launcher for Linux. If anybody has reason to be afraid, it's probably the current Gnome developers.

The article also notes that the purpose of the foundation is to mount a challenge to Microsoft Office. Hmm. And who in the consortium has a working office suite? So we're going to see Star Gnoffice? That's bound to delight those working on the embryonic Gnome-native office applications, don't you think?

I suspect that what we're seeing here is an announcement to stockholders in IBM, Sun, Hewlett-Packard, and the others that the companies haven't missed the Linux boat. This would, of course, have been far more effective a year ago, but big corporations tend to be circumspect. They're powerful, but they're plodding, too. And the money involved, which will probably be huge by Linux standards, is pocket change to the companies. Consider the amount of money that IBM alone has squandered on failed projects. Anybody remember Signature, the easy-to-use version of XyWrite that was developed by IBM and XyQuest, and abandoned about 15 minutes after it was released? (I say "squandered," and that's really not fair, anymore than money spent on car insurance during a period when you have no wrecks is money squandered. It's hedging their bets.)

All that having been said, the announcement in the Times is very good news. For everybody.

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