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The Linux Desktop Paradox

Reporter's Notebook: Nearly every year for the last decade I've heard some pundit or vendor proclaim from the rooftops: This is the year of the Linux desktop. Yet, year in and year out, the proclamations don't materialize.

With the innovations in the release of KDE 4 (K Desktop Environment) this week, the pundits are at it again. This time, one could argue that KDE 4 is among the most advanced desktops -- for any operating system, let alone Linux.

At the same time, GNOME , a rival open source desktop system, has also made tremendous strides in recent years, and has become the base of the two principal enterprise Linux desktop distributions.

Therein lies the great Linux Desktop paradox.

Your average computer user is used to either the Microsoft Windows or Apple Mac paradigm, in which the OS and the desktop are not disparate items. Microsoft has THE Windows desktop and Apple has THE Mac Desktop.

But when it comes to running Linux, there is no Linux desktop. Rather, users have a choice of a collection of technologies, including GNOME, KDE, Xfce and others. Each respectively offers a different choice and a different Linux desktop. This is not just about choosing a different theme or screensaver; these are distinctly different technologies with different tools and applications.

Sure, it's not like it was ten years ago when a KDE app would only run on KDE and GNOME only on GNOME. The core Qt libraries that power KDE and the core GTK libraries that power GNOME and contribute to creating graphical user interfaces are both available to each platform.

Yet the two platforms persist in two separate and distinct efforts.

Choice is a very good thing -- don't get me wrong. Choice, however, also leads to confusion in the broader market that doesn't understand that they have a choice.

Which brings us back to the pundits. How can there ever be a year of THE Linux Desktop when there isn't one? How can the various Linux desktop technologies emerge as more dominant players overall when they still have to work on interoperability between themselves?

These are not easy questions. People a lot smarter than me are working hard at figuring these things out. Efforts such as freedesktop.org have done incredible work making Linux desktops interoperable. Lars Knoll of Trolltech recently told me that he doesn't think that it should be a competition between the various Linux desktop. I think he's absolutely right.

Yet competition remains and will continue to do so.

Certainly competition can also breed innovation as each desktop project may try to outdo the other. For some the choice of desktop is a religious issue almost, where they buy into the particular philosophy of its development.

For others, it's a more practical choice.

There are also different use cases for the different desktops. The Xfce Linux Desktop, for example, is a minimalist interface that requires fewer systems resources than either KDE or GNOME.

On the Enterprise side, both Novell and Red Hat have made GNOME their standard. Yet, on the community side of things, KDE persists being popular with users of many distributions including those from Red Hat, Novell, Mandriva and Ubuntu. Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux himself, has come out on the side of KDE.

While there may be a degree of interoperability between the various Linux desktops, the reality is that when you choose a desktop, you often end up with a default set of applications. You also get a different way of navigating and controlling the system. For example, in KDE 4, you get the new Dolphin File manager, which includes semantic attributes . You won't get that in GNOME.

Can you imagine having the choice in Windows of a different file manager other than using Windows Explorer? It's just not something you think to change -- unless you've got a choice.

With all the choices available, it is somewhat difficult to say that THE Linux desktop is the way to go for a particular user or enterprise. Rather, I would argue that it's time to promote Linux Desktops in general.

While interoperability is a good thing, the reality is that the different desktops exist and will continue to compete against each other based on user choice.

While choice may be a new concept for Windows and Mac users, choice is what Linux has always been about. The choice between using Unix or a free alternative, the choice between using Windows or Linux, the choice between using Red Hat, Novell, Debian, Gentoo or Slackware.

Collectively, that choice offers strength -- and confusion -- as well as competition and innovation. So, while I'm not sure there will ever be a year of THE Linux desktop, I do expect that certain choices will lead to some very good years for some Linux desktops. This year could be one of them.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor for InternetNews.com.