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GNOME 2.6 Out to Up Linux Desktop Stakes

UPDATED: The GNOME project is expected to release version 2.6 of its open source Linux desktop Wednesday, which supporters call a major step forward in offering choice among desktop players.

GNOME is one of two principal open source projects vying to be the Linux Desktop technology of choice. The other main Linux Desktop project, KDE, released its latest version a few months ago.

GNOME , which stands for GNU Network Object Model Environment, is the default desktop for Red Hat's and Gentoo's Linux distributions and is also the basis for Sun's Java Desktop System (JDS). The Windows-like desktop system, which works on Unix and similar systems and is not dependent on any one window manager, is also available as a user option on most major distributions, including Mandrake and Novell's SuSe.

The latest version includes a number of enhancements that improve usability, contributors said, including the addition of "Spatial Browsing" to GNOME's default window browser Nautilus. Spatial Browsing is similar to the way the finder, or query, function works on MAC OS X in that it layers windows on top of each other. Each directory maps directly to a window, so the user doesn't have two windows representing the same directory, which helps a user tunnel into database information during a query. More information on the concept can be found here.

"It's an evolutionary improvement to the GNOME platform," said Miguel de Icaza, one of the initiators of the GNOME project and Ximian cofounder, who is now vice president of product technology for Novell , which owns Ximian.

Other notable improvements include additional functionality for the GNOME equivalent of Winzip, FileRoller, which now fully support Red Hat Package Manager files. RPM is a format that allows for easy distributions and installation without having to compile.

GPDF, GNOME's default PDF viewer, is improved in the release, and features GNOME's help viewer called Yelp.

de Icaza told internetnews.com that a simpler interface has been the goal of GNOME since at least version 2.0.

"GNOME is turning into something that is really pleasant to use," he said. "I can happily say that GNOME 2.6 is up to the level of MAC OS X usability. There is still room to grow and you'll keep seeing that."

Indeed, the GNOME project, which Icaza helped launch, is moving in new directions. "There have been many changes," he continued. "I don't think this is the way I envisioned GNOME, but it has turned out much better than I thought."

de Icaza said he once thought GNOME would be a consumer-facing operating system, but later realized the goal was not possible, given the widespread availability of applications for Microsoft Windows.

The project's focus on corporate enterprises and governments, however, is a different story.

"They don't need every possible application that is out there; they only need a certain set of standardized features," he said. "We've seen a lot of adoptions in governments. In particular the largest deployment of pure GNOME is a 200,000 machine installation in Spain that serves 400,000 users and they plan on duplicating that number by the end of the year, " he said. "It's getting there -- I still think the consumer market will be difficult to get, but it will get there five years from now."

Red Monk Analyst Stephen O'Grady told internetnews.com that neither of the two desktop projects, KDE or GNOME, really dominates over the other among corporate enterprise users. For example, O'Grady noted, Sun Microsystem's JDS is GNOME based, while SuSe's desktop version favors KDE (though it does include GNOME as an option).

SuSe's corporate parent Novell owns Ximian as well, which is a GNOME operation.

"Novell will have some interesting choices to make regarding its support for the user interface, given the differing paths SuSe and Ximian have taken. Thus far, despite rumors to the contrary, they are steadfastly refusing to single one or the other out as preferred," O'Grady said. "In short, I think traction in the marketplace is mixed."

Despite differences between KDE and GNOME, O'Grady said the future of the Linux Desktop is bright. "When you couple a steadily improving, and in our view, more than 'good enough' offering with compelling economics, it's difficult to conclude otherwise," he said.

"Now does this mean that it's going to pose a significant market share threat to Microsoft in the next year or two? Unlikely. But we feel that Linux will definitely gain a foothold in the next 12 months that it will be able to build from."

According to de Icaza, it's also important to look beyond the Linux Desktop view of the world. He said the most successful open source projects today are projects such as productivity suite Open Office and browser Mozilla, which run on both Linux and Windows platforms.

"Building Linux on the desktop is fantastic but maybe we should be thinking of more of a cross platform application," he told internetnews.com.

However, the corporate enterprise is always where the money is. "From the point of view of making a large impact on the world going the 'open source desktop' way is a little more interesting than the pure Linux way."

The new version of GNOME was scheduled for release last week but was delayed due to a reported intrusion on GNOME's servers. Official GNOME spokespeople were unable to comment beyond GNOME's information on its mailing list.