February 18, 2006

KDE and GNOME collaborating on free desktop promotion

Author: Tom Chance

A quiet revolution is taking place on a young mailing list, one that overturns years of false enmity and makes perfect sense to most free software users. Having competed for the free desktop crown since 1997, collaborating on code but never on promotion, KDE and GNOME have launched an initiative to market and promote the free desktop together.

While each project will continue its own marketing and promotion projects, the new cooperation recognizes how much each project has to gain from taking market share from the proprietary competition. As a KDE promotion volunteer, I'd argue that this cooperation needs to succeed, and that it should become central to all free software marketing and promotion on the desktop.

It's not entirely surprising that the mailing list has been set up. Late last year, the KDE project announced the formation of the KDE Marketing Working Group. With the stated goal of "coherent and strategic messaging around KDE," the group has brought a new focus and professionalism to the project's marketing and promotion efforts. From improving the promotion of the KDE 3.5 release to undertaking the first serious marketing research and working on a community promotion platform called SpreadKDE, volunteers are taking their experience and tools and using them to ever greater effect.

The GNOME project has also been busy in recent months, reinvigorating its marketing group with a series of debates and mini research projects culminating in a large repository of materials and research. The results are surprisingly good, given how hard it can be to conduct productive discussions on subjects that often get bogged down with anecdotal evidence and unresearched opinions.

With this growing sense of professionalism and purpose, it was perhaps inevitable that the projects would collaborate. The same can happen amongst developers, where a certain level of code and project maturity makes collaboration so obviously beneficial. But with code, it makes sense -- if you're both developing PDF viewers (KDE's KPDF and GNOME's Evince, for instance), then collaborating on the basic shared PDF rendering technology, poppler, is a no-brainer.

Why does cooperation also make sense for marketing and promotion efforts by two competitors? For one thing, most people use elements of both GNOME and KDE; a GNOME desktop is more likely to run KDE applications than a Windows desktop, and vice versa, and not just because many KDE/GNOME apps don't run on Windows at all. Researching the market as though people are out to choose between the desktop environments and promoting them on that basis misunderstands the market from the outset.

Many people use KDE and GNOME because of their philosophy of software development and licensing, which the projects share. In fact, the free or open source desktop is often a more interesting concept than the specific technology each project delivers. This is especially true in certain sectors, such as government, charities, and campaigning organizations, where the ethics and politics of software freedom strike a chord and meet an institutional goal.

The contributors to each project also have important reasons to collaborate on marketing and promotion. If KDE were to launch a marketing campaign against GNOME, painting it in a negative light, GNOME contributors would be justifiably unhappy about collaborating on code such as D-BUS, poppler, and Open Sync. Being free software projects, nobody could block somebody else's involvement, but acrimony would hardly help the cause. Mutual appreciation and respect, on the other hand, goes a long way toward encouraging future collaboration.

KDE and GNOME undeniably occupy a very small share of the desktop market. If GNOME took 20% of that share from KDE, it'd make a marginal gain. But if KDE and GNOME together took a 10% of the desktop market by 2010 (a stated goal of the GNOME marketing project), they'd both gain a massive amount.

The media loves to pretend there's a desktop war and that the two projects are in fierce competition. It's a way of making a non-story much more interesting, and it's an impression that contributors to both projects help fuel on occasion. Look at the furor that erupted after Linus Torvalds recommended KDE over GNOME, or when rumors spread that Novell was about to sack all of its KDE staff. Both stories gave the projects lots of attention, but they also gave the impression that the two projects are divided, under-resourced, and fighting for supremacy on a desktop that is riddled with problems. These impressions, while false, can become pervasive if they crowd out "feel-good" stories about the free desktop. Disparaging GNOME hurts KDE, and vice versa.

The conception that KDE and GNOME are primarily competitors and entirely distinct products is a particularly big problem when the projects do market research -- a process that includes working out what the market wants that your product doesn't deliver, so you can then develop the product with that in mind. If KDE and GNOME don't work together and instead focus on where they differ from one another, they could find that their key features address the needs of fairly marginal markets, making both the products and the promotion uninteresting to the majority of desktop users.

Acknowledging the differences, after working out which are most relevant to the target markets, will help. KDE and GNOME can't do this without cooperating on market research and without presenting a strong free desktop with healthy competition. Collaboration will not only benefit market research, but is necessary to yield meaningful results. Promoting the free desktop together, while still promoting the particular benefits of each project, is also essential both for the health of both projects and their success in the long term. I just hope that this new mailing list is a paragon of productivity, not of anecdotal chatter and frustrated dreams.

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