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Lou's Views: KDE vs. Ximian
February 13, 2001
I had a little spare time Monday night, so I thought I'd do a quick e-mail and news check before working on a couple of projects. And what do I see on LinuxToday.com, but the latest eruption of the of the "war" between the desktop environment camps, this time between KDE and Ximian. (See the links he re, here, and here in case you missed it. In essence, the KDE folks were upset over Ximian's practice of buying "ad words" on Google to display ads and links luring people to Ximian's site when someone searches on a KDE-related token.)
Even though cooler heads have prevailed and major damage was averted, the Linux community just experienced their own version of the infamous "thirteen days" of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Still, these events will only deepen some of the rifts in the Linux developer and user bases, and for no good purpose. In that spirit of having just dodged a bullet, let me provide everyone concerned with a little free advice from someone (me) who's been through the industry meat grinder a few more times than most of the people on these two projects, not to mention the countless hordes getting riled up about this: Shut up, grow up, and stop fighting each other instead of your common enemies.
Let's do the Ximian side of this debacle first: This was a perfectly legal but thoroughly nasty and stupid thing to do. Did you really think no one would figure out you were behind this, or if they did, that the hyper-political segment of the Linux community (let alone the more rational contingent) wouldn't go ballistic over it? This is roughly the equivalent of spray painting your logo on the front door of your competitor's headquarters, and getting filmed by the security cameras that are in plain sight. It was ill-conceived, amateurish, and just about the last thing Linux and Free/Open Source software needed right now. Thanks for not only bringing a powder keg to the party, but then lighting the fuse. The only good thing that can be said is that Ximian had the sense to snuff out the fuse in time.
I have more sympathy for the KDE side of this mess, but they get at least a smidge some of the blame for escalating this matter. The KDE guys aren't the most reserved bunch, as long-time watchers of this little soap opera will recall, but we shouldn't let that hide the fact that they're the victims. It's hard to condemn someone who's upset because it was their building that got spray painted, when many of us would probably have reacted much the same way. Still, I wish they would have taken a little more reserved approach in their initial response and not resorted to talking about "legal risks" and using other language that only threatened to worsen the situation that we all should have been trying to get under control. Instead of publishing this open letter to Ximian they should have kept the conversation private until it was resolved. Their letter to Ximian is here, although it might be changed by the time you see this editorial.
As I see it, there are really three sides to this mess: Ximian, KDE, and the KDE- and Qt-related companies, like theKompany.com and Trolltech. The third group has the most reason to be outraged. If I worked for one of them, particularly Trolltech, a company that has been and continues to be beat up over a long-dead licensing issue, and had nothing to do with this situation, I'd be just about ready to pop a vein my forehead. Notice that Trolltech wasn't dragged into this by implication (KDE is written using their Qt framework), but directly: One of the ad words Ximian rented on Google is "trolltech", which as of 10:20PM Monday night (east coast US) was still triggering the Ximian "Free Linux Desktop" ad and link, but was ad-free Tuesday morning. I've had considerable contact with Haavard Nord and Aron Kozak of Trolltech, and they're very classy, level-headed people, which only makes this situation an even clearer case of "when bad things happen to good people", and that much more distasteful.
Before we give in to the temptation to stroll too far down the righteous indignation path, let's step back and take the long view of things. Here we have Linux and its band of brave knights making phenomenal inroads into Fortress Microsoft, deeper and faster than almost anyone (including yours truly) had predicted. But instead of focusing our collective resources on that goal, a fistfight suddenly breaks out between two of the most important knights, and for a particularly stupid reason. One can only imagine what King Bill, perched in his golden tower, thinks as he peers down on this scene, and how easily his Royal PR Machine can turn this to his advantage. (OK, I'll stop straining the ye olde metaphor; you get the point.)
I suppose if you tried really hard you could come up with a dumber way than this for the Linux camp to waste resources (money, time, energy, and attention), but you'd have to put a lot of thought into it, probably more thought, in fact, than Ximian did before it pulled this stunt in the first place.
Finally, it's worth pointing out that this in-fighting is not only wasteful and silly, but it's amateurish. One side buys ad words for another's trademarks on a search engine? Oh puh-leeze. Wait until Microsoft is fully engaged in fighting Linux (and I guarantee you they've barely started), and they start unleashing things far more subtle and more effective than this or Steve Balmer's occasional back-handed swipes at Linux. Then we'll see just how hard hardball can get. But that's OK, we'll be ready to handle it, thanks to the rigorous PR warfare training we've had in AdGate.