They're the greatest thing since sliced bread or the biggest waste of hard drive space imaginable. Some users wouldn't have gone near a computer without at least one; others believe they're only good for those rare times when a graphical Web browser is needed. With recent developments between the GNOME and KDE camps, 2001 could shape up to be an entertaining year for the world of window managers and desktop environments.Window managers on UNIX systems are hardly anything new; the beginnings of the modern graphical user interface date back to the mid-1980s, when MIT first released the networked bitmap services that are now known as X11. Before X came W, along with a stream of lesser-known window managers, some Open Source and some not, with names like SunView, NeWS, and GEM that sound exotic to newcomers and invoke nostalgia in the minds of programming veterans.
Today, there's no shortage of window managers making use of X, with form and function to suit almost any individual user's specific needs. If anything, the major obstacle to installing and using these extra services is more about publicity than technology. With recent developments hinting at a battle for the Linux desktop in 2001, it's possible that smaller window managers may suffer as a result.
There are two giants in the Linux desktop world: GNOME and KDE. Virtually all new Linux computers and most distributions ship with one, the other or, more frequently, both of these desktop environments. Both environments share services and features that make it easier for users to administer their systems, but with the inclusion of tools that don't always function reliably with alternative solutions, also make users reluctant to test the alternatives.
The August 15 announcement of the GNOME Foundation's formation caused no small amount of concern in the Open Source community. Chock-full of announcements that major companies including IBM, Sun, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, and (NewsForge owner) VA Linux would support the program, there was concern that less organized projects might fall by the wayside. The bulk of that concern went to the K Desktop Environment (KDE), which was perceived as being less than ready to handle the challenge proposed by this formation.
Brushing aside such concerns, KDE published an official position on the GNOME Foundation, saying that its presence affected KDE development "as much as the birth of the last baby polar bear at the Quebec City Zoo (i.e., not at all)." KDE went on to insist, "none of this really has anything to do at all with KDE," and that the GNOME folks were "simply changing the way that their own project is governed and controlled."
In response to the announcement that GNOME will become the default desktop for all new Linux computers made by Foundation members Sun and Hewlett Packard, KDE sniffed, "Sun hasn't impressed us much," and "We will still put out an excellent product that is among the best in the world."
KDE asked itself if it would ever form a KDE Foundation in the same sense as the GNOME Foundation, then answered itself by saying "...no, absolutely not." But on November 15, a press release trumpeted the formation of the KDE League, sporting many of the same industry heavyweights behind the GNOME Foundation, with a healthier dose of Open Source companies like SuSE, Trolltech, and TurboLinux thrown in for good measure.
Despite KDE president Andreas Pour's efforts to keep the KDE League from looking like a reaction to the GNOME Foundation, the comparisons were inevitable. "If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," wrote Upside Today's Sam Williams, "GNOME developers must be feeling pretty flattered right now."
Unlike the GNOME Foundation, which seems to have been formed as a steering program that decides what is and isn't GNOME, and coordinates releases, KDE's effort is one of coordinating publicity efforts to raise outside awareness of its activities.
If the opening shot has been fired in the Linux desktop war, its noise has been lost amongst the sounds of mutual politeness issuing from each organization. Big business, mindful of losses in past technology-backing efforts, is hedging its bets this time around. Some companies are involved with both efforts, and most are waiting to see which one comes out ahead.
With Linux becoming less of a hobby venture every day, what's going to happen to other window managers as GNOME and KDE continue to increase their desktop dominance? Will independent window manager development fall by the wayside or become stronger? With the inclusion of tools and features that work best inside their respective desktop environments, is the Linux community encouraging the same sort of "take it or leave it" attitude that many claim Microsoft has?
It's always possible that these questions could become obsolete.
As a KDE supporter once mentioned, when that group first formed in 1996 they were told to give it up "because GNUStep would be released before we could do anything meaningful."
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