LinuxWorld: The look and feel of Linux

Charles Babcock

March 3, 1999

Linux is the fastest-growing server system, according to recent figures from industry analyst International Data Corp., which raises the question of whether the operating system will be able to expand its role onto the desktop as well.

Given the proven reliability of Linux and its $0 price tag, that prospect is under active consideration in many companies. But an information systems manager trying to equip his desktops with Linux must still research three or four user interfaces, all of them works in progress through dozens -- sometimes hundreds -- of open source code developers. In many ways, the Linux GUI is typical of the operating system itself, configurable to a hundred different needs -- but that's not necessarily what the average Macintosh or Windows user wants.

In fact, two user interfaces for Linux can be configured today to look similar to a Mac or Windows desktop, with a few minor dislocations: the K Desktop Environment (KDE) and Gnu Network Object Model Environment (Gnome). "I would say the average Windows user could switch easily to Gnome," said Gnome developer Seth Alves in San Francisco.

KDE developer Bernd Johannes Wuebben agrees. "We've tried to be extremely pragmatic and build something that can be used today," he said. Both Suse and Caldera Systems include KDE with their Linux distributions. Red Hat ships an older interface, FVWM2, but is a backer of the Gnome development project. A lead Gnome developer, Miguel de Icaza of Mexico City has scheduled a press conference at LinuxWorld in San Jose Wednesday to announce the first general availability of Release 1.0 of Gnome.

But the average Windows user may not be quite as prepared for the Linux interfaces as the developers imagine.

The first time a user accustomed to Windows 95 works with KDE, for example, the unexpected can happen. Clicking on the minus box in the upper right-hand corner of the screen to shrink an open task into an icon makes the task seem to disappear off the screen. Instead of creating an icon at the bottom of the screen, where the Windows users looks to find the application so it can be reopened with a click, KDE generates the icon at the top.

In place of a Start button, the Windows user finds a big white K, but it works much the same. At first glance the KDE file manager, Find File, looks like a giant napkin holder (it's a duotone file folder) with a dog house in front of it (representing the user's home directory). Once you translate the icons, however, the KDE interface begins to function much like the Mac or Windows, only more so. Instead of one desktop configuration, Gnome or KDE will give you the option of configuring multiple virtual desktops, assembling distinct sets of applications that are related to the way you work, say word processing with a graphics editing application or financial applications with a spreadsheet. KDE includes on the desktop menu bar a set of buttons for four different virtual desktops so you can switch quickly between them. If you really want, you can have eight.

KDE also includes a padlock icon that allows you to lock up your screen as you walk away from it, requiring the user's password to reopen it. This of course adds a KDE-specific password to the several that users may already be required to remember. Gnome is characterised as the most modern Linux desktop, conceived of as an object-oriented system that would be compliant with the Common Object Request Broker Architecture of the Object Management Group. That means that the developers thought through the problem of making the functionality of one Linux application available to another, such as being able to open a spreadsheet in a word processing document. Gnome is also able to work with a variety of windows managers, the subsystem to each user interface that is actually opening and closing windows, etc.

Two other user interfaces are commonly available: The ageing FVWM2, an old standby for Linux users that appears to be fading away, and AfterStep, an open source code knockoff of the NextStep user interface fielded by Steve Job's Next Computer Inc. "FVWM2 looks identical to Windows 95," said Jim Raeuchle, network administrator at the Burlington Coat Factory, which is installing up to 1,250 Linux PCs as replacements for dumb terminals in its 250 stores nationwide.

Chris DiBona, director of Linux marketing at VA Research, a Linux systems integrator, termed FVWM "a leftover" that is being outstripped by KDE and Gnome. VA Research ships KDE on its systems, he said. Yet another choice is Enlightenment, not really a user interface but a graphically rich window manager "that's really cool. It's eye candy," said DiBona. Enlightenment works with Gnome.

But the contenders for popular user interface under Linux remain KDE and Gnome, and at the moment, Linux experts agree, KDE is in the lead. Its acceptance within the Linux community was initially slowed by an intra-tribal debate over whether it is really open source code. That issue has been resolved in KDE's favour, thanks to the release of an underlying set of class libraries, QT Lib, as open source code from the Norwegian firm, Troll Tech. "Right now the Linux graphical user interface is KDE's to lose. If they keep moving ahead, they'll win the Linux desktop," said DiBona.

"Just wait. In six months the corporate desktop will be shifting to Linux. The next version of KDE will give it a Mac-like interface," said Arthur Tyde, president of the Bay Area Linux Users Group and CEO of LinuxCare.

KDE Release 1.1 just became available in early Feb. Version 2.0 will give KDE selectable "themes," such as Macintosh-like user interface or AfterStep. But Wuebben said it is hard to predict when open source projects will bring their projects to fruition. Getting Version 2.0 by the end of the year, he said, "may be wishful thinking."

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