by GaŽl Duval - Co-Founder of MandrakeSoft, with contribution from Henri Poole, Denis Havlik and Phil Lavigna.
Two years ago, the KDE versus Gnome war was at its apogee : Gnome supporters criticized KDE over the Qt License (Qt is a graphical toolkit made by TrollTech used as a programming basis to KDE) which was not a true free license, and KDE supporters bashed Gnome because of their (seemingly) extreme devotion to Free-Software "purity" and because, at the time, GNOME had not yet released anything "significant".
In march 1999, TrollTech created the QPL (Q Public License) which was recognized to fit the Open-Source criteria (see http://www.opensource.org/osd.html) if not "pure" Free-Software in the eyes of the Free Software Foundation (see http://www.fsf.org/philosophy/free-sw.html). Gnome developpers were hard at work and released a desktop environment which is now a very complete and easy to use environment for many users. KDE and Gnome even spoke about cooperating for a time, especially about common communication protocols between the two environments; we were all hopeful that soon we would have the capability to "drag and drop" a Gnome object into the KDE file-manager.
The debate has heated up again recently specifically due to an announcement at the LinuxWorld Expo that Gnome, Sun, Compaq, Red Hat, Turbo Linux and others would support Gnome as the standard desktop for Linux (see http://www.gnome.org/pr-newcommitments.html). It launched a rain of articles featuring the arguments from pros and cons from within the Linux community and even from the mainstream computer press. It was indeed quite "funny" because much energy was expanded but unfortunately nothing was resolved. It was just a good opportunity to relaunch the debate on this theme, which has advantages (the mainstream press talks about Linux) and many disadvantages (unlikely supporters of Gnome and KDE won't speak to each others for a while).
So what's the reality behind the flamewars ? The reality is that users and developers are being overlooked. The different actors in this debate tend to see their own interests first, but what do the users think? The truth is that some users prefer KDE, some others prefer Gnome, some others enjoy WindowMaker, some others love IceWM, some others are used to CDE, some others like AfterStep, some others FVWM... some others just launch X and an XTerm, and some others prefer to use the console only. And it's the same thing for free-software developers. Some of them will prefer to program with the LessTiff toolkit (which is a free-software equivalent to Motif), some others with Gtk, some others with Qt.
With Free Software, we are each provided the opportunity to work in an environment that is as diverse as the world in which we live. This is a unique and special opportunity, especially when something becomes this big. GNU/Linux is growing by leaps and bounds, bigger than ever. But GNU/Linux is not Unix, GNU/Linux is not Windows. GNU/Linux and more generally Free-Software is something that never happened before on this scale. Free-Software is an enormous project that involves thousands of developers, designers, writers and also hundreds of companies that believe in Free-Software and that don't necessarily need uniformity. Proprietary software is uniform because it's easier for companies to manage one tool than several identical tools. However the reality in the Free-Software world is that numerous development and user environments exist because they fit different needs of different people. If the evolution of the human species was stunted and homoginized 50,000 years ago, we wouldn't have had many of the benefits of evolution. The diversity, over time, in an evolving ecology, creates higher states of order.
So why would we start to imitate the traditional software makers ? People are different, they have special needs, let's proclaim that the standard is KDE and Gnome and... any other high-level free desktop environment that is good enough to make Linux more attractive to all users.
A few days ago, I proposed to the Free Standards Group/Linux Standard Base that we consider adopting both KDE and Gnome as the GNU/Linux standard for graphical environments. Although the answer I received was that the LSB was not yet covering this area (specifically: no way to have this included in the next version of LSB), I was pleased that several participants considered it possible. I would see this (at least) dual adoption as a real improvement and a chance to stop all those tiring wars. Furthermore, I see this as a more practical solution than the current one which is to put the so-called "problem" into the hands of the largest software companies, several of which are not born of the open culture that gave birth to GNU/Linux.
Here at MandrakeSoft, there was a time when we wondered about what might be the "standard" graphical environment for Linux. At the time, KDE seemed to be on its way to becoming a standard, but Gnome was already showing its great potential. After several days of pondering this question, we all concluded that "Free Software equals Diversity" and it is critical to keep this advantage! That's the reason why we provide KDE, Gnome and six other graphical environments with Linux-Mandrake. This is also why we provide the many tools that are needed for programming and developing graphical applications for Linux: both the Gtk devel libs and the Qt libs. We've never been told by a user that there are too many choices in Mandrake. In fact, users seem extremely happy with this diversity and how we provide an easy way for these tools to work together. For example: Users are provided easy access to Gnome applications from within the KDE environment, and all the other graphical interfaces are directly accessible from the desktop-manager login prompt. And maybe this situation has a connection with the fact that Linux-Mandrake is the most sold Linux distribution on retail in the USA and the fastest growing Linux distribution in the world today.
Thanks to Free-Software, for the first time in the software industry, and maybe for the first time in history, people are empowered with the opportunity to get tools that match their specific needs, tools that look like them in particular... This world would be quite boring if we each bore the same face.
We will never want KDE to extinguish Gnome, or the opposite to happen. We want all the advantages of both of those wonderful environments, and to keep alive the potential for even more. And we want this for all free major components. With this spirit, let's all take Free Software even further and higher without being distracted by yesterday's money makers who don't understand what freedom is about.