February 20, 2019

Editor's Note: Serial (Software) Monogamy

Open Source: Freedom of Choice

  • September 15, 2000
  • By Michael Hall

A while back, someone coined the phrase "serial monogamy" to describe the act of bouncing from one really, really sincere and long-term committed relationship to the next every six months.

It's a phrase that works pretty well for software, too:

Not too long ago, I bought a decidedly low-end Thinkpad so I could manage a little travel and work at the same time. The Thinkpad, though a solid enough machine for its age, wasn't up to handling anything as luxurious as a full-blown desktop environment and it was quickly stripped down to a minimal fvwm2 and Emacs (the mention of which, I know, will make the real minimalists snicker into their ':' prompts).

I liked it because it made a pretty good (if warm to the touch) thin client for working on the futon, the cats liked it because using it at home involved me trailing a 100 foot cat-5 cable through the house to wherever I felt like working.

After using it that way for a few days, I became bothered by the difference between working on it, in all its minimal glory, and the Duron in the study (which runs GNOME and sawfish (which is light enough in its own right)). So I went on an 'environment vacation' and began to run fvwm2 on the desktop machine as well.

I take these vacations about once every six months, when I'm feeling glutted on GNOME. I dust off blackbox or fvwm, spend a little time hassling with some fine point of configuration or forgotten keystrokes, and enjoy.

Once I get used to life without the panel and all the pretty pointy-clickies GNOME provides, it's a pleasant enough life: Netscape is usually left with enough RAM that I can shut it down, run something else, and bring it back up without hitting the disk. Not that GNOME's some sort of shambling beast...but it takes memory to run three ray-traced biffs, a weather reporting gadget, and whatever else it is that goes on behind the scenes to keep all the bits and pieces of GNOME talking.

During this latest vacation, one of my correspondents was thinking the same thing, and he'd reduced himself to running WindowMaker on his FreeBSD machine. We exchanged happy letters about the luxury of speed and responsiveness, and then turned to talking about how many times we'd abandoned our light-weight window managers every time the siren call of a new GNOME or KDE release called.

Our serial software monogamy, we decided, was something we'd learned from brighter lights in the freenix community than either of us. Take GNOME, for instance.

At its inception, GNOME flirted briefly with fvwm (inciting an unhappy spurt of interest in "themeability" for the old girl), settled in for a cozy while with Enlightenment, and is, finally, mostly settled in with Sawfish. fvwm2 goes on, and the Enlightenment team are still working toward producing their own, unique take on what a Linux desktop can be.

Balsa, the GNOMEick mail client, was similarly once The GNOME darling...soldiering on for over a year as rumors came and went of Miguel's passion for a new way of doing things that finally manifested itself as Evolution. Balsa recently cranked out a few updates, and it remains a pleasant enough client for use with any desktop.

The latest bride left standing at the altar by Free Software's Lothario was, of course, the loose affiliation of packages known as the "GNOME Office," AbiWord among them. With the treat (and opportunity) to atomize StarOffice, which Sun recently GPL'd lying in front of them, the GNOMEites jumped.

"AbiWord, yeah. It's fairly larval. It's up to that project. I'm not driving that. That's up to the AbiWord guys," said Miguel in an interview with LinuxPlanet's Dennis Powell as he explained just where some of the pieces of the old GNOME Office project now stand.

Some folks, looking to turn a strategic decision into black treason, made a bit much of the "abandonment" in the days immediately after the announcement that StarOffice was to be rendered...uh...componentized and GNOMEified. It's silly to think, though, that there's any rancor in Miguel's heart toward AbiWord or any of the other projects he's left at the altar: he's following his muse, and GNOME is a fun project to follow as a result. Some of the more serious and chronic hand-wringers will bemoan the effect this will have on the uptake of Linux on the "corporate desktop," which is just a hair over-earnest for my taste.

One AbiWord developer I spoke to seemed to feel reciprocally ambivalent toward the GNOME project moving on to StarOffice, and plenty enamored of his own work, pointing out that hackers were still working on helping GNOME and AbiWord mesh but also reminding me that the project has bigger fish to fry as it moves along. When the dust settles, AbiWord developers are still producing good code and still moving toward a 0.9 release sometime soon.

His attitude, though, is a good reminder about some of the verities of living the Linux life:

For one, despite the sort of polarities things like the late unplesantness known as the Desktop Wars tend to induce among us, there's a lot more choice out there for us than the 90 percent of the market Microsoft claims is ever going to know. Even if GNOME and KDE are the worst possible choices for an old Thinkpad, there's still something out there that will run on it and serve well. Looking back on the trail of software GNOME has embraced as it careens along, projects which have their own lives and uses, it's clear that there's room for diversity just about everywhere.

Second, there are as many motivations for producing Free Software as there are people doing the producing. The GNOME Foundation was characterized in the non-Linux press as a "challenge to Microsoft," which it most likely is to some. But the AbiWord developer I spoke to was much more interested in pointing out that he's happy to be working on a cross-platform word processor that doesn't eat a lot of RAM and works exactly the same under one OS as it does another. Period. Being a part of the larger project to "bring Linux to the desktop" seemed like a bit of an abstraction.

I recently returned to the world of desktop schizophrenia by hopping back over to GNOME on the Duron (hey.. Evolution's up to 0.5! Nautilus is cool!), and my correspondent struggles against the siren call of KDE2 once again, complaining bitterly about how long it takes him to compile it on his elderly Pentium, but dazzled by the high "nifty factor" of the newest version.

We're both happy benefciaries of the sort of choice that allows us to follow in Miguel's footsteps--loving and leaving software by the gigabyte--and so is every other Free Software devotee.

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