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Red Hat to Unify KDE, GNOME

Long-simmering tensions in the Linux community between KDE desktop developers and Linux distribution stalwart Red Hat began boiling over last month, as Red Hat laid out plans to offer new configurations of the rival KDE and GNOME desktops in its latest Red Hat Linux beta, code-named Null.

Red Hat wants to configure both the KDE and GNOME desktop environments to look and behave in a similar fashion -- a goal that a sizeable camp in the Linux community sees as an important step in the operating system's maturation, and one that both KDE and GNOME developers have been pursuing through freedesktop.org

But some members of the KDE community, fueled by bad feeling stemming from KDE's history with Red Hat, took immediate issue with Red Hat's plans, arguing that Red Hat was removing functionality from the KDE desktop, and would also negatively affect KDE's performance by replacing major KDE applications in the default menus with generic terms (like Web Browser) that run non-KDE applications (like Mozilla, as opposed to KDE's native Konqueror). This, they argued, heavily affected KDE's performance because the non-native applications require sizeable shared libraries in addition to KDE's shared libraries. However, it is important to note that the native KDE applications were not removed in Null; they just aren't in the default menus.

In an attempt to nullify those arguments, Red Hat Desktop Team Member Owen Taylor said, "One thing we are definitely not doing is intentionally misconfiguring KDE to make it look bad. There is no point in shipping crippled software; all that could possibly do is give users a bad impression of Red Hat Linux."

He added, "Another thing we are not doing is stripping out features of GNOME or KDE to reduce them to a common subset. There are a few cases where features of one desktop or the other aren't in the default configuration because we are sharing one set of configuration decisions between the desktops. As example of this, we considered using the GNOME "menu panel" feature, but decided against it partly because an equivalent effect couldn't be achieved in KDE.

However, he conceded that Red Hat's hackers are far more experienced with GNOME than KDE, and probably are doing a better job with GNOME modifications than those for KDE.

"But we've spent more time and effort on our KDE configuration in this release than in any previous release, and we believe that the end product is, in fact, one of the best KDE desktops that we've shipped."

So is all the controversy worth it? For long-time Linux veterans and the dedicated open source converts, the answer is probably no. But for the past few years, the entire Linux community has been working to make Linux a mainstay of the enterprise. Two different graphic user interfaces (GUIs), that work and behave differently, can make that difficult, especially when the Linux boxes are intended for offices workers instead of programmers, as Red Hat plans with its Red Hat Technical Workstation. Where programmers are likely to be able to configure their desktops on their own, other workers would likely require Corporate Help Desks, and multiple default configurations could tie up resources.

"Things that make the desktop more consistent make it easier for new people to approach the environment," said Jim Gettys, of HP, a GNOME Foundation board member. "Why should your grandmother find that things look different and mess around twice to get the settings the same. That's what the freedesktop.org standards are all about."

Gettys, speaking for himself, said he is all for Red Hat's efforts, though he has not taken a look at the Null beta code. "Having them look and operate more like each other, I think that's a good goal," he said.

"Applications are applications," Gettys said. "I'm perfectly happy to use good applications no matter whether they're GNOME or KDE. What ultimately matters are applications for people to use. I see no reason for GNOME to build a replacement for a KDE application or vice versa if there are good applications available."

He noted, however, that such sentiments should not prevent developers from attempting to create a better version.

Taylor added, "We're doing something wrong if a user is choosing between logging into GNOME or KDE because:

  • There is an application available in one and not in the other. If an application is useful, we should make it available in both desktops
  • The user likes the way a preference is set in one better than it is set in the other. Examples of such preference settings include such options as font choice, single-click versus double-click for desktop icons, and the default set of panel applets. If we have an opinion on what is the better choice for a particular setting, it would be irresponsible for us not to configure both desktops that way. If we don't have an opinion, it still doesn't make sense to configure one desktop one way, the other the other way; it just means that we don't get good feedback on the issue from our users."

Red Hat also has other reasons for its changes: "First off, the desktop is one piece of a larger Red Hat Linux product," said Red Hat Desktop Team Member Owen Taylor. "Other components range from our configuration tools, to the applications we include, to our Web site, to the box that Red Hat Linux comes in. We believe that all of these components should look and behave consistently.

"Creating two sets of configuration tools, two Web sites, and two boxes isn't feasible or desirable. So we have to make the desktop fit in with the rest of the product instead of making the rest of the product fit in with the desktop."

In addition, Taylor said, Red Hat wants to adopt similar configurations for the two desktops in order to reduce its integration work.

"When we ship a desktop, we need to integrate our configuration tools, services such as Red Hat Network, and our recommended set of applications," he said. "If we start from two distinct upstream default configurations, then this job becomes two entirely different designs, instead of just two implementations of a single design."

Taylor acknowledged a downside to Red Hat's strategy, including the removal of some branding from KDE and GNOME in order to allow for the use of identical Red Hat artwork (the Bluecurve look) across both desktops. It also affects some of the major competitive areas between the two desktops, namely: artwork, the selection of default configurations, and the selection of office and productivity applications bundled with the desktop.

But Taylor argued that changing the competitive focus, while probably not a popular move with either developer camp, could be beneficial, in that it would motivate the two camps to compete on things like stability, speed, feature sets offered by core applications, ease of use, quality of internalization and desktop configuration tools.