Linux gladiators duel for desktop crown

Linux has come a long way in the past few years, particularly at the server level. The open source operating system is now widely considered enterprise-ready for applications such as E-mail, e-commerce and Web servers. Some complain that Linux is not yet up to snuff for other mission-critical apps, such as ERP, business intelligence, CRM and supply chain planning. Others want to see better security and proven Symmetric MultiProcessing (SMP) scalability. But it is clear now that growing numbers of IT managers are nursing budding relationships with the OS.

One of the key decisions IT managers are bound to face sometime during the evolution of Linux in their enterprises is the selection of a desktop environment. At press time and for the foreseeable future, that choice comes down to two feature-rich and rapidly maturing environments: GNOME and KDE.

"In most corporate deployments, Linux is still a server operating system," said Thomas Murphy, program director at Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group. "This UI piece doesn't really make any difference, short term. But long term, it becomes an issue. If you're betting on one horse or the other for your company, this decision matters."

Both KDE and GNOME are free, open source-based desktop environments for Unix/Linux users. Basically, desktop environments are sets of applications and tools that allow users to interact graphically with the computer system, shielding them from the dreaded command line with mouse-driven functionality such as drag-and-drop, rubber-band selection, point-and-click and the clickable icon. They also give applications running on them a consistent look and feel, and they provide unified application help systems, common application development frameworks and libraries for creating programs for the desktop.

The source code for the latest releases of both environments is available for free download, and most current Linux distributions support both. Most basic KDE and GNOME programs will run under one another's environments as long as all the required system libraries are present. And each includes or works with an impressive number of free utilities and applications, from simple games to full-blown office suites.

The development and refinement of KDE and GNOME are ongoing projects. Several hundred software programmers from all over the world contribute to the development of these environments. KDE is the older of the two. Initially called the Kool Desktop Environment, KDE is the brainchild of Matthias Ettrich, who began the project in October 1996. The first version was released in July 1998. The current version (2.1) ships with the core KDE libraries, the core desktop environment, developer packages (including KDevelop), as well as more than 100 applications, including administration software, games, graphics, multimedia, network, a PIM and utilities. The new version includes Konqueror, a state-of-the-art Web browser, as an integrated component. It also ships with KDevelop, an advanced IDE.

KDE runs with its own Window Manager (KWM), and it includes a file manager, a help system, a configuration system, tools and utilities, and several applications. The most popular suite of KDE applications is KOffice, which includes a word processor, a spreadsheet application, a presentation application, a vector drawing application and image editing tools. KOffice was released with KDE version 2.0 in October 2000.

Although KDE is used primarily with Linux, it was designed for use with any flavor of Unix. Today, KDE is used with Solaris, FreeBSD, OpenBSD and LinuxPPC.

The GNU Network Object Model Environment, or GNOME (pronounced "guh-NOHM"), was also designed to run on many versions of Unix. The GNOME project began in 1998 as a direct reaction among free software proponents to the licensing requirements of Trolltech, maker of the Qt library on which KDE relies for its graphical widgets. Initially, Trolltech made its library available in source code form for free software development, but anyone wanting to sell the applications they developed using it had to buy a license.

Richard Stallman and fellow members of the Free Software Foundation—who believe that software source code should always be public and open to change so that others can continually improve it—took umbrage at the Qt fees, and GNOME was born. GNU (pronounced "guh-NEW") is a free Unix-like OS developed by the foundation. Generally speaking, when we talk about "Linux," we are actually referring to a variant of the GNU OS, which is more accurately called GNU/Linux.

"That licensing issue drove a real wedge between people supporting GNOME and [those supporting] KDE," said Stacey Quandt, associate analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Giga Information Group. "And even though the Qt library is now free, the rivalry still exists, although it seems to be more of a friendly competition. You could say that competition is good, because it forces both to enable better functionality. They can't sit still. They need to keep moving forward, because there's this other parallel environment pacing them."

The official founder of the GNOME project is Miguel de Icaza, a 28-year-old programmer from Mexico. Icaza is also CTO of Boston-based Ximian Inc., a company that is trying to capitalize on GNOME by linking that user interface to e-commerce services on the Internet.

"The difference between KDE and GNOME goes beyond just making graphic applications," Icaza said. "It's a matter of creating a foundation [on] which you can build powerful applications. That's why we started the GNOME Project—that and the need for a completely free system."

According to Kurt Granroth, a KDE core developer working for SuSE Inc., Oakland, Calif., to understand why two competing desktop environments have emerged, you have to look at a fundamental difference in the two camps.

"KDE is an open source desktop," he explained. "GNOME is a free software desktop. It sometimes doesn't make sense to people outside the community, but we have very different philosophies. The free software community believes that software should be free as a moral issue. It's unethical to have closed-source software. I've heard the word 'evil' used to describe it. However the open source community believes that open source software is simply more practical, that you get better quality as a result of it, that it's the shape of things to come. Arguments between the two camps can have a religious fervor sometimes. When someone calls what you're doing evil, that doesn't sit very well."

"You certainly have people who are passionate about one or the other," said Leslie Proctor, marketing coordinator for the GNOME Foundation, "but on another level, we're trying to build bridges and have user interfaces that are common."

Along with the desktop environment, GNOME comes bundled with the GNOME development platform (a collection of tools, libraries and components to develop applications on Unix) and the GNOME Office (a set of office productivity applications).

Like KDE, GNOME runs on most types of Unix. Unlike KDE, GNOME comes with an Object Request Broker (ORB) supporting the Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA). GNOME programs can interoperate with programs from other operating system platforms in a network. GNOME also includes a widget library that programmers can use to develop applications that use the GNOME user interface. In addition to a desktop version, GNOME also comes as a user interface and set of applications for the handheld PalmPilot.

As of this writing, GNOME 1.4 is in its second beta release. It comes with a new file manager, called Nautilus, which was developed outside the GNOME team by a Mountain View, Calif.-based company called Eazel. Like KDE's Konqueror, Nautilus serves as a file manager, Web browser and file viewer (Eazel calls it an "extensible shell").

Both KDE and GNOME are capable, rapidly maturing desktop environments. Both are supported by the major Linux distributions. Both come with lots of bundled software. And both are sprouting new features like overfed Chia pets. At this point in their development, choosing between them is probably more a matter of personal taste than anything else, but there are factors to consider.

One thing you might want to look at is the number of current users. KDE probably leads in sheer numbers, but not by much. According to Linux developer survey data from Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Evans Data Corp., KDE is used by 70% of Linux developers, GNOME by 64%. But that survey was conducted last year, and the GNOME initiative has put that marginal leadership in doubt.

Another approach, said Quandt, is to look at which environment the big hardware vendors are supporting. "I think you have to look at where the vendors are throwing their support," she said. "A good place to look is the memberships of the GNOME Foundation and the KDE League. You'll want to know who's throwing their eggs into which basket."

Last August, at the Linux World developer conference in San Jose, Calif., 13 hardware makers, software vendors and various organizations announced that they were throwing their support behind the newly created GNOME Foundation. Among the backers of the foundation are Red Hat, TurboLinux, VA Linux Systems, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun.

"The GNOME Foundation marks a major step forward for the GNOME project," de Icaza said at the time. "As GNOME continues to gain momentum, we needed a forum where the GNOME developers and corporate partners could come together to coordinate the continued development of GNOME. The support of these industry leaders will help us to achieve our dream of building a fully free, easy-to-use desktop environment that will be used by many millions of people."

Then, in November, the rival camp established the KDE League. The founding members of the League include Borland, Caldera Systems, Compaq, Corel, Fujitsu-Siemens, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Mandrakesoft, SuSE, Trolltech and TurboLinux.

"The two organizations are very different," said Granroth. "They were formed at about the same time, and they both have corporate sponsorships, but the similarities end there. The GNOME Foundation exists as a steering committee for GNOME. Decisions about the GNOME interface are made by a board. The KDE League has no responsibility at all for development. It exists purely as a promotion arm. KDE is still developed by anyone who wants to work on it."

Beyond the activities of these two support organizations, vendors are committing their organizations to either environment. IBM, Sun and HP have recently announced that they will be making GNOME the default desktop environment for many of their systems.

"Given the industry support, GNOME is very compelling," said Quandt. "But keep in mind that there are a lot of KDE developers out there, especially in German-speaking countries, given the support by SuSE. There could be a lot of supporters in France because of MandrakeSoft's support. Depending on the geographical reach of your organization, you could have users who are much more wedded to [one] solution."

An important factor to consider, said Murphy, is how you expect to use a desktop environment in your organization. "If you're moving to Linux as a Windows desktop replacement," he said, "and you don't plan to install and run anything else, you can pop KDE in there and be off and running. You'll want to evaluate KDE based on the bundled apps. But I think that most people will be more likely to install other applications, like the Word Perfect suite layered on top of their Linux distribution."

And developers might well be swayed by the object-oriented nature of GNOME's CORBA support. "[GNOME] has a very sexy-looking toolkit," Murphy added.

Ultimately, the selection of one environment over the other does feel a bit like betting on a horserace. Who will ultimately win this race?

"It all depends on who starts knocking down the wins," said Murphy. "People building client-side software for Linux, and those organizations starting to coalesce around one or the other could drive a standard; or if one or the other starts to get a significant win in the device market. And the issue there is, can they run in a small enough footprint? That's often really hard."

But even if there is a clear "winner," the sheer bloody-mindedness of the open sourcers is bound to keep multiple contestants on the track.

"We'll always have more than one UI for Linux," said Granroth. "If one happened to go away, another project would start up to replace it. One of the tenets of the Linux community is choice. Different people have different ideas about how they want things done. If all the KDE developers decided all at once that we were going to stop working on it, there are plenty of open source people who would say, 'That's unacceptable,' and start their own projects."

Eazel and Ximian give GNOME the edge
Although the overhyped "war" between Linux desktop environments seems to have evolved into something of a friendly competition, GNOME, just might have an edge. Two of the top open source organizations advancing the Linux cause, Eazel and Ximian, have hot GNOME-based offerings.

Eazel, founded last year by some of the original Macintosh interface gurus, has created Nautilus, a graphical shell for Linux. It is often called a file manager, but it integrates file management, Web browsing and system management. Nautilus includes: built-in viewer components for displaying file contents and quick access to editors; content- and attribute-based "virtual folders" that free users from a file hierarchy; and a URL-based naming scheme for local and Web content viewing.

Eazel has allied itself with Linux heavyweights, including Sun, Red Hat and Dell. Last year, Sun announced plans to distribute Nautilus and GNOME on its Solaris workstations and Internet devices. Red Hat will deploy its Network with Eazel's network technology. Dell plans to ship Nautilus with its Linux-based desktops and notebooks.

But those alliances may not be enough to save Eazel, which is reportedly having trouble securing funding and recently cut roughly half its staff. Company founders said they were "pursuing all possibilities, including aligning ourselves with a bigger company."

Because Nautilus is an open-source project developed under the GNU Public License, whatever becomes of Eazel, it may very well survive and thrive in the hands of open source developers. Eazel's product marketing director, Tom Goguen, said, "Nautilus is going far, with or without us."

Ximian, formerly known as Helix Code, seems to be having no such money troubles. In January, the company reportedly secured $15 million in second round venture funding. The Ximian GNOME Desktop is a complete desktop environment "for regular people." Ximian GNOME is not another GNU/Linux distribution, like Red Hat. It is an add-on, and users need an existing distribution system running to install it. Ximian is also porting the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) distributed-computing protocol to GNOME. Called "SOUP," the technology will allow Web services written for Linux to be compiled for SOAP.

Ximian has been busy establishing relationships of its own. In February, Hewlett-Packard announced that it would be shipping the Ximian GNOME desktop with its HP-UX and Linux systems beginning later this year.

—John K. Waters