GUI contenders are sparring for the Linux desktop

Although the Linux movement is seen by many as one happy community of information age hippies, the lack of a standard look-and-feel, which makes the open-source operating system so popular with technical users, could also be what’s keeping the OS off the desktop.

Unlike Microsoft Corp.’s Windows family of operating systems, where users of different releases see more or less the same desktop GUI (graphical user interface), Linux has two major competing desktop environments: K Desktop Environment (KDE) and the Gnome interface.

Both of the Linux desktop GUIs were displayed at this year’s Comdex trade show in Las Vegas. Although deciding which of the two environments to go with might seem something of an impossible task for new users, they shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for either one to disappear, according to Dirk Hohndel, chief technical officer of German Linux distributor SuSE GmbH, and a KDE advocate.

“Competition is a wonderful thing to happen for innovation; we’re finally seeing more funded players in the market for both environments,” Hohndel said. “It’s good that there are different choices for people.”

This also may not be the typical competitive talk consumers are used to hearing. One of the most visible differences between what’s occurring here with Linux desktop GUIs is that it is very rare, if not impossible, to find an advocate of one environment bad-mouthing the other. It’s nearly as rare as finding someone who has sworn allegiance to KDE or Gnome. As Hohndel puts it, “Open-source developers are open.”

Even the creator of the Linux operating system, Linus Torvalds, is happy to see the friendly competition between both the desktop environments and the different companies that publish the operating system.

“Diversification is fine, the problem is when you have infighting… that’s what happened with Unix,” Torvalds said, referring to the battles between different companies’ Unix versions that resulted in fragmentation of the operating system, eventually leaving a hole that Microsoft Corp.’s Windows NT and later Linux have moved to fill.

Instead, supporters and coders of the two Linux desktop GUI environments see themselves more as sparring partners, preparing to battle a 200-pound gorilla on its own turf.

“We have reached a point where we’re not that scared of Microsoft anymore,” SuSE’s Hohndel said. “I estimate that in two years, Linux will be on 30 per cent of the desktops,” he added, putting Linux’s current market share on the desktop at between five and eight per cent.

At Comdex, the supporters of KDE announced the formation of the KDE League, only three months after the Gnome foundation came forward to launch its own initiative on bringing Linux to the desktop. However, both lists of supporters share a few familiar names, including Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp.

Another example of this amicable war between environments is that even though SuSE has half of the KDE development team on its staff, the company still includes both Gnome and KDE with its Linux distribution. SuSE will also begin shipping copies of its Linux OS with the recently released KDE2, the latest version of the environment. However, to really take a chunk out of Microsoft’s share of the desktop, both Gnome and KDE are slaves to Windows in the effect that neither one is completely unlike Windows.

“KDE2 is a gigantic step in the right direction,” Hohndel said of the similarities. “Customers have most likely used Windows before. They want a stable, fast, reliable environment, and a widely accepted desktop.

“But we believe in different choices for people, so we do include the latest and greatest version of Gnome as well,” he added.

KDE is at The Gnome foundation can be found at