April 17, 2014

Peace and Bread in Time of War: GNOME Defended

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

  • August 28, 2000
  • By Michael Hall

I got my start in UNIX nearly ten years ago. It wasn't a particularly easy process: I was a freshly retired philosophy undergrad who'd found himself working in a university print shop, the only person in the building with even a vague interest in computers. I happened to be on hand the day Xerox and Sun showed up and sold our management people a UNIX-based imaging system. In a shop full of old hands who came up via (not the world wide) web presses, the system was a mystery, and I ended up running it because no one else knew which way to orient the special optical mousepad.

Over time I got myself pretty thoroughly hooked on UNIX. Linux wasn't much more than a curiosity at that point, and I spent a lot of time writing batch files to make my MS DOS system behave a little more like the environment I was living in at work. I found a copy of Borland's Sprint and began to use it religiously because it could be customized to emulate Emacs keybindings.

It took a few years for me to get around to playing with Linux much, and when I did I don't think many were even fantasizing that the OS could ever provide a serious alternative on any "normal" user's desktop. It didn't even occur to me that anyone would ever want to bother: I was content with the text-based shell, and X Window just made it easier to get at multiple command lines. The real bonus, as far as I was concerned, was that I could have something like what had become my beloved UNIX on my desktop at home and I could stop writing batch files to simulate csh commands.

What a difference a few years and thousands of programmers make. Arguments that fvwm95 ought to be more than enough to help Windows users make the transition to Linux seem pretty quaint, and we've got two desktop environments that are beginning to work past the "just as easy as Windows" stage and moving into breaking new ground of their own. It's a great time to be a Linux user.

Looking back on the formerly impoverished Linux desktop also makes the desktop wars seem more like a tempest in a teapot, though it's a tempest awash in some questionable notions and misleading rhetoric.

I've been using GNOME as my primary environment for a while now. I'm not completely sold on the personal usefulness of having a "desktop environment," but it fits the way I think about my machine, and I feel a lot less cramped in some intangible way when I work on getting it tweaked just so. It works for me. Having contributed a modest amount of documentation to the GNOME project, and having followed it from its infancy, I felt a little pride when the GNOME Foundation was recently announced.

One thing I didn't feel, though, was a cold-blooded hegemonic impulse. It's great that a free software project has gained some support, it will be interesting to see what this alliance brings, and it will probably bolster every developer's efforts to make the Linux desktop that much better. Why, though, does this issue have to be cast as some sort of subversive end run on the part of the GNOME Foundation?

We seem to be forgetting that this isn't an "all or nothing" situation. One of the blessings Linux confers is an environment where tools of wildly divergent natures can exist together. They may not always talk to each other, but it takes little to get them to coexist. The component architectures of KDE and GNOME may never communicate, but one or the other shipping on the machines of companies that have chosen to standardize around GNOME won't preclude the other, any more than those exact same companies shipping Microsoft products in overwhelming numbers has stopped us from firing up fdisk and putting their machines to better use.

Both GNOME and KDE are the result of years of hard work. Both are stable, usable, and largely accessible. Both are oriented around making the Linux desktop experience more end-user friendly. Both enjoy, in one way or the other, some sort of corporate support. Corel, for instance, which has proven popular among new users, provides KDE as the foundation of its desktop despite its grounding in Debian. Libranet and Mandrake are similarly KDE-oriented. It's never occurred to me, though, to worry about GNOME's future in the face of this commerce-driven "top down" support, the same way it didn't occur to me to worry about Linux's future when people who complained about usability were routinely told to shut up and enjoy fvwm95.

Complaining about a handful of businesses standardizing around GNOME seems hypocritical when many of those doing the complaining were happy to hold Corel et al up as friends of the community when they got behind KDE.

Baiting the GNOME project for daring to partner with corporations seems somewhat forgetful when objections to QT's commercial (and previously unfree) nature were derided as some sort of muddle-headed hippieism that was just getting in the way of the Linux charge to the desktop.

The fact is, the GNOME Foundation promises to help along a process supporters of Linux have been getting behind in growing numbers over the past few years: taking Linux out of the server room and giving users of all skill levels a chance to enjoy the benefits many of us have enjoyed for a long, long time. It's no more sinister than Red Hat selling a shrink-wrapped product, or VA Linux preinstalling one distribution or another. It doesn't mean we've been forbidden to run KDE where it suits.

It certainly isn't an act of war.

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