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Editor's Note: Conned by the Gnomes

Top-Down Standards in Linux? Bad Gnomes!

  • August 17, 2000
  • By Kevin Reichard

Let's discuss a major press conference where a group of industry heavyweights--among them Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM--vow to cooperate on an industry-standard graphical interface, positioned as a powerful tool to battle the monopolistic Microsoft.

The result? The Common Desktop Environment, or CDE.

OK, so CDE didn't change the world, and it barely changed anything in the UNIX world. For those too young to remember, CDE was an attempt by an industry consortium to create a common desktop environment across UNIX versions. It was based on Motif, and in theory it was to combine elements from several proprietary UNIX/X interfaces like OpenLook and the Motif Window Manager.

But CDE development took forever as the participants in the industry group got bogged down in the details and a key version of Motif was delayed, and in general it looked like an interface designed by committee--which it was. CDE didn't magically make UNIX workstations easier to use, and many in the UNIX community fought an attempt to impose a commercial and sometimes awkward "solution" on users who very happy using the X Window System or OpenLook. And when Linux became the most popular UN*X on the planet, there was no move by anyone initially to make sure that Linux users would have access--commercial or otherwise--to CDE.

I can't help but think of GNOME when I reflect upon the formation of an industry group--including Sun, H-P, and IBM--that is attempting to standardize Linux users on a single interface based on GNOME and technologies from Eazel. (See http://linuxtoday.com/news_story.php3?ltsn=2000-08-14-012-06-PS-DT-SW for more information.)

Maybe it's unfair of me to bring up CDE in a discussion of the GNOME Foundation; after all, Linux is not UNIX and the computing world is not the same as it was 10 or so years ago. But I'm one of those guys who loves the fact that there are multiple interfaces available out there for Linux users, I know darn well that it's easy enough to code applications that work optimally under both GNOME and KDE, and I admire the purity of endeavors like GNOME and KDE when they're the work of dedicated volunteers who do it for the sheer love of Linux and coding. In short, I'm a huge believer in an open meritocracy that encourages bottom-up development instead of forcing top-down "standards." Like CDE.

I'm also not against the commercialization of Linux, but I want it to be in an open and honest fashion: I really believe that if you release a decent product at a decent price you'll be OK, and I dislike corporate shennanigans based on hidden agendas. To me, the GNOME Foundation is really nothing more than an attempt by large vendors to impose their agendas on the Linux community and stifle both innovation and community involvement. For Sun, this is nothing more than an attempt to push StarOffice on the Linux community by tying it to a single desktop standard; it's also a rather blatant effort to crush K Office before it's released, and that saddens me a great deal, because K Office has the potential to be a killer application rising solely from the Linux community. (Let's be honest: according to Sun, most StarOffice users are on the Windows platform. Sun is trying to replicate the Windows environment on Linux. Boo.) For Red Hat, this is a way to direct development of the desktop to fit Red Hat's needs--and given Red Hat's rather cavalier attitude toward KDE in the past, don't be surprised if it becomes more and more difficult for users to install and run KDE. For Eazel and Helix Code, this is an attempt to control the de facto Linux interface and make money on service agreements. For the Free Software Foundation, this is a sell-out: the way the GNOME Foundation proposes to impose "standards" on the Linux community goes directly against what Richard Stallman has been preaching for years, and his silence on the creation of the GNOME Foundation is very disappointing. (See his response at the end of this article.)

And for Linux users, this is a bad deal. Period.

Richard Stallman responds:

Kevin Reichard is concerned that GNOME developers plan to "impose a standard" on the "Linux community". Although I am not directly involved in organizing the GNOME Foundation, I am sure that isn't true, because it does not even make sense.

GNOME is not meant specifically for people who use Linux as the kernel. It is a part of the GNU system. GNOME will support the HURD-based version of the GNU system, as well as the Linux-based versions of GNU that are widely used today. Like GNU packages, GNOME can run on some other operating systems too. We usually accept changes to support some other system, as long as they don't make maintenance much harder.

GNOME is actually our third try at developing a GUI desktop; the first one was started in 1990 but did not really take off, and the second was started around 1995 and took a detour to develop Guile instead.

GNOME may set a standard, but it cannot impose one. We cannot force anyone to use it, and since it is free software, anyone is also free to change it. People who use the Linux kernel and the GNU/Linux system often wish for "world domination soon". But that is humorous exaggeration--they don't mean real, imposed domination, just popularity. We would like GNOME to be popular too. Popularity is not the ultimate goal of free software, but if GNOME is popular, that will encourage people to switch from non-free Windows and Mac systems to GNU or GNU/Linux, and thus spread freedom.

If GNOME eclipses the popularity of a rival desktop package such as KDE, there's nothing wrong with that.

GNOME is meant to encourage Windows users to switch to GNU/Linux, but we should not focus on Windows as a technical target. The original plan was to aim to make a desktop as good as the Macintosh, and we should not lower our ambition by making one merely as good as Windows.

There were some problems in the way that the GNOME Foundation announcement was made, in that companies had too much influence over the press release. It often said "open source", when it should have said "free software" (GNU is part of the Free Software Movement.) See http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-software-for-freedom.html. And it mistakenly called the whole operating system Linux, which is confusing (see http://www.tux.org/lkml/index.html#s1-1) and not right (http://www.gnu.org/gnu/linux-and-gnu.html). I hope that they will handle this better next time.

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