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Lou’s Views: Converging on a Linux Desktop? Part I

Is Linux starting to converge on a desktop standard, and if so,
is that necessarily a good thing? I’ve been pondering these issues
for quite some time, and some recent market survey information
that’s come to my attention has shed at least a few stray photons
in their general direction. At this time in Linux’s lifespan these
are both Big Topics, so I’ll talk about the “is it happening” issue
this time around, and leave “is it a good thing” for the next Lou’s
Views.

The impetus for this heightened introspection was a posting by
Chris Schlaeger of Kamp KDE (carried
here
on LinuxToday.com), in which he said, “Recent studies show
that KDE is used on more the 70% of all Linux desktops. We could
fight for those remaining 30% but given that Linux has less than 5%
of the overall desktop market we should rather target the 95% of
desktop users than compete with our friends from the GNOME
project.”

Seventy percent sounds mighty impressive, and, more to the
point, it would seem to be irrefutable proof that not only does KDE
have a commanding lead over GNOME and every other contender, but
that the convergence on a single desktop is already well under way,
even if no one noticed. Frankly, it seemed a little too good to be
true; KDE is a very good desktop environment, no doubt about that,
which is why so many people (including your faithful correspondent)
use it. But the more I thought about it, the less credible that
number seemed in light of the plethora of window managers and
desktop environments for Linux. Another factor arguing against the
70% solution is the passion some people still have for opposing KDE
and Qt at every turn, thanks the Licensing Issue That Will Never
Die. Instincts piqued, I doffed my 1940’s-style reporter’s hat,
complete with PRESS card stuck in the band, and started sending
e-mail. I first asked our friends at KDE where that number came
from, and they cited the market research company Evans Data Corporation. A quick
check with them revealed some interesting, if not completely
definitive, details.

First, the number came from a survey of about 300 developers
that was published in March of 2000. That’s right, developers, not
simply people using Linux on a desktop. Second, the respondents
were allowed to pick more than one answer, and the complete
results, as provided by Evans Data and quoted with their
permission, were:

               Count      Percent of      Percent of
                           Responses        Cases
KDE             217          25.7            70.7
GNOME           196          23.2            63.8
FVWM            120          14.2            39.1
AfterStep        69           8.2            22.5
Windows Maker    62           7.3            20.2
Motif            43           5.1            14
Lesstif          42           5              13.7
CDE              40           4.7            13
None             29           3.4             9.4
Other            28           3.3             9.1

Obviously, the first lesson is not to jump to conclusions, and
to read any quoted statistics very carefully. Chris
Schlaeger never said they had a lock on 70% of the desktop market,
which is what I, and no doubt many other people assumed he meant.
He merely said that KDE was used on 70% of desktops. You can beat
him up for saying this percentage applied to “all Linux desktops”,
however, since that’s clearly not what the survey measured. (The
kind people at Evans Data Corporation also made it clear to me that
no one should quote that number without making it clear it was
derived from a question allowing multiple responses. All things
considered, I have to agree with them.)

But wait! as they say on infomercials, there’s more! Evans Data
Corporation also mentioned that there was another study they
published in September of 2000, six months after the one Schlaeger
quoted, that asked the same question. This time, the results,
exactly were:

Desktop Environments

               Count      Percent of      Percent of
                           Responses        Cases
GNOME           185          26              66.3
KDE             177          24.9            63.4
CDE              38           5.3            13.6
None             35           4.9            12.5
Other            21           2.9            7.5

Desktop Windows Managers

               Count      Percent of      Percent of
                           Responses        Cases
FVWM             72          10.1            25.8
Windows Maker    70           9.8            25.1
AfterStep        52           7.3            18.6

Aside from the obvious facts that GNOME passed KDE for first
place and that they’re the dominant desktop software, what can we
glean from comparing the March and September snapshots about the
desktop situation in general? Not a lot, in my opinion, since only
developers were questioned, not “real” users. I’ve long believed in
the “killer critical mass” theory that says developers often lead
the market, and that the winning platform in terms of market share
is the one that does the best job of capturing developer time and
mindset. (Exhibit A: Windows’ 90% share of the desktop market. Say
all you want about Microsoft’s business practices, it’s true that
they did a masterful job of locking in developers early in Windows’
lifespan, and that doing so was key to the later marketing
maneuvers actually working.)

Lesstif and Motif were both removed as separate answers in the
September survey, so presumably people who used those also chose
“other” as one of their selections. Yet “other” actually declined
from the first survey to the second, which suggests (but doesn’t
prove) that the desktop choices among developers are narrowing
slightly.

Notice that the window managers in both surveys even split–FVWM
and AfterStep were down, with Window Maker up significantly. If
you’re so inclined, you can try to figure out how many desktops the
average respondent uses. Throwing out the “none” votes this works
out to about 2.7 desktops/person in the march survey, and about 2.3
in the September survey. Given that these still include the “other”
category, which is in itself a wild card, since we don’t know how
many environments any one person is indicating when he or she picks
this response, it’s hard to say even the developers are beginning
converging on one desktop. I think it’s clear that all users, my
fellow developers as well as real people, will they will eventually
succumb to the pressure of the “killer critical mass” effect as
more and more KDE- or GNOME-specific apps are created, and both
environments continue to improve at a stunning pace.

In my opinion, the jury is still out on whether we’re seeing the
glaciers converge (although I’m eager to see the March 2001
numbers) . But the question of whether consolidating on a small
number of Linux desktop environments, or even just one, is a good
thing is something we can talk about much more concretely. Which
I’ll do next time.

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