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Community: It’s Not About Linux, It’s the Desktops, Stupid!

[ Thanks to Zeek
Greko
for this article. ]

By Zeek Greko

Former US President Bill Clinton’s election campaign office
(dubbed “the war room”) had a sign on the wall that simply stated
“It’s The Economy! STUPID!!” Put there to remind workers that
despite the myriad of other social and political issues needing
their attention, they should keep their primary focus on the issue
they had determined was of most concern to the voting public. The
Economy.

The Linux pundits’ ever-present “Is Linux Ready For The Desktop”
articles, and their recent rash of “The Honeymoon Is Over For Linux
Adoption” articles, refer to a waning interest among the general
computer-using public toward moving to Linux kernel-based systems.
Some valid peripheral issues are raised in these articles but they
are in fact peripheral. They miss the point. The underlying core
issue is the desktop.

The Desktop Is The Operating System, Isn’t It?

To most non-technical users, the desktop they see and use
is, in totality, what they understand the Operating System
to be.

If they are using KDE, KDE is Linux to them. If it’s GNOME
they’re using, then GNOME is what Linux is to them. They don’t
care, nor is it absolutely essential that they know more than that.
That nearly all endeavors that make use of the Linux OS kernel are
referred to as “Linux” is an aberration. The sheer broadness of the
term “Linux” is also a source of end-user confusion. Normally, to
an end user, the underlying OS kernel is never mentioned when
making reference to or describing their system, if it is even known
to them at all.

In my experience, most Windows 2000/XP users don’t know that the
core OS kernel they are using is NT. Neither do Windows 9x/Me users
know they are using DOS. No, to them they are using a “Dell Model
001 with Microsoft Windows XP” or some other such comparably
defined description (Make:Model:Microsoft Windows Desktop Version).
Applying this end-user friendly, easy to understand and remember
description to Linux kernel-based systems would logically put the
KDE and GNOME desktops into a place of prominence within that
description (Make:Model:Distribution: KDE/GNOME Desktop Version)
relegating Linux to lesser or no mention at all.

This would be in line with current OS norms and much less of a
source of confusion. What’s your computer? “My Computer runs
Windows,” “My Computer runs KDE,” “My Computer Runs OS X,” “My
Computer runs GNOME.” If they have ever seen these desktops before,
these responses convey a basic understanding of your user
experience to someone’s “minds eye” as quickly and effectively as
“Big Mac” conveys what you had for lunch and where you had it. “My
Computer Runs Linux” is so totally nebulous as to tell them next to
nothing more than that the answer is going to take a while and
require further dialog. Maybe even a notepad.

Linux Desktop Polarization

Nothing starts a prolonged and downright ugly flame war in the
forums faster than a KDE vs GNOME discussion. This in itself says a
lot about how even technically savvy people within the Linux
community personally equate Linux to either KDE or GNOME. People
are passionate about loving or loathing one or the other. This
polarization is a major forking point within the Linux
community.

Who among us, who were here at that time, could forget the
reaction to Novell, a GNOME-centric company, buying a major KDE
Distro, SUSE? And the sheer panic that ensued among SUSE users that
Novell would dump KDE and replace it with GNOME? Sage-like
predictions of the imminent demise of KDE abounded because of
it.

On the now defunct The Linux Show, Eric S. Raymond’s prophetic
utterances were to the effect that KDE had six months to live.
Well, that obviously didn’t happen. If Novell had in fact switched
to GNOME, there simply would have been a mass exodus from SUSE to
some other acceptable KDE distro, with Novell losing most of the
“good will” they paid good money for in the process.

The die has been cast. Both KDE and GNOME are hear to stay for
the foreseeable future, and are as much a part of the Linux
community as Linux itself. They are even more a part of the F/OSS
community than Linux. When the SCO debacle happened, the
speculation (if they won) was not whether F/OSS would survive, but
what other kernel would need to be thrown under our KDE and GNOME
desktops. KDE and GNOME separately enjoy “Brand Loyalty” that most
corporate CEO’s can only dream of, and we would all do well to keep
that in mind and build on it.

The Butcher Shop Branding Pandemic

Common among all major Linux distributions, and most minor (spin
off) Linux distributions, is that they use KDE, GNOME, both, or a
hybrid of both (like Red Hat’s Blue Curve). Also, all major Linux
distributions, and most minor Linux distributions, create their own
unique and customized configuration tools (DRAK, YAST, etc.). As a
consequence, and without exception, they break, disable, remove
outright, or just leave them to crash when you try to use them,
whatever configuration tools that are natively provided by the
desktops. KDE and GNOME are treated simply as packages to them,
albeit large ones. They also summarily remove components and hack
and butcher away as they please.

Kubuntu, as a recent example, removed KDE’s login, replacing it
with GNOME’s (see the “Polarization” section above for why that’s a
stupid move). Further, in their attempts at distinguishing their
product (branding), the various Distros so modify the desktops that
they are nearly unrecognizable as their core desktop. An example of
this is Linspire, which so reworks everything it touches, including
the desktop, that an actual KDE user would need a lot of time just
to acclimate themselves to it. Because of this, many of you have
never actually seen KDE or GNOME in their pure states. What you see
is your particular Distro’s modified (corrupted) versions of
them.

Any MS Windows user can sit down in front any other MS Windows
computer of the same version and use it, or even configure it
without skipping a beat. Not so with Linux. The same distribution,
yes, but Linux distributions in general, no way. Not even with
different Linux Distributions using the same desktop and
version.

Distro Du Jour Burnout, Linux Becoming Unsupportable

I think the pundits’ perceived waning of interest toward Linux
has some truth to it, but it might be more accurately defined as
“Distro Du Jour Burnout.”

Linux kernel-based Operating Systems have now become hopelessly
mired in convolution, rife with incompatible redundancy through the
over-proliferation of the various distributions’ multiple package
management systems, techniques, and repositories; their unique
configuration tools; and other unique incompatible branding
modifications. This situation is definitely not conducive to
hardware vendors, OEMs, or third-party commercial software vendors
wanting to come on board Linux.

Also, competent general-purpose Linux system support has become
virtually impossible by all but the the most fanatical devotees of
All That is Linux. The volume of specific, esoteric knowledge that
must be maintained is huge and continues to grow exponentially.
This is an absolutely critical situation that cannot be
overstated.

We Need More Distros–Exactly Two More

If KDE and GNOME are to become (and rightly so) the instantly
recognizable “Big Mac and “Filet O’ Fish” of Linux, they will need
become separate core entities and build their own core OEM Linux
distributions. They may have to just to retain their identities and
continue meaningful desktop development that is free from the
distros butchering their work.

These KDE and GNOME OEM cores would ideally become two separate
community projects. This would leave us with one primarily Qt-based
core distro, and one primarily GTK-based core distro. This two
separate-core concept is strategic to help maintain healthy
competition among the OEM cores and to prevent the creation of
another dangerous Microsoft-style “OS Mono-culture.”

This would also reduce overburdening (as they are now) device
and applications vendors who might be persuaded to support Linux
kernel-based systems if supporting them was simplified. GPL’d
projects too. for that matter. Since only two basic core binary
packages of a product, project, or driver, would be all any of them
would need to provide, centralized package repositories for KDE-
and GNOME-compatible software could then become obsolete. Plus, two
separate cores also sidesteps the problem of two fierce competitors
(the KDE and GNOME teams and their supporters) having to come
together and agree on anything, while simultaneously eliminating
wasteful redundancy and enabling tight integration of each of their
installers, package managers (if needed), and configuration
tools.

Lesser known, or yet to be built, desktops could easily wed
themselves to the OEM core that uses their primary base (XFCE =
GNOME/GTK base), and could reuse all/most of the same software
packages and configuration tools.

The various distributions would jointly support these OEM
desktop cores, then build their offerings on top of them by
selecting and bundling best-of-breed GPL/Proprietary tools and
applications to provide complete usable end user and/or special
purpose systems with their related support services. Healthy
competition between the distros would be changed somewhat in their
primary focus, but would continue more or less unabated. They would
move beyond just successful basic installation and setup of the
desktop to being actual value-added solution providers. No less
importantly though, Linux-based systems would in short order become
competently supportable by many more people of average technical
ability, thereby drastically reducing TCO. And, as a result, they
would become more widely accepted as truly viable alternatives to
the MS Windows monopoly products.

Conclusion

End users, support people, and independent software providers
that are interested in participating in Linux kernel-based
alternatives to Microsoft are starving for the kind of clarity and
simplicity such as is outlined here, or some similarly acceptable
solution. We should discuss, debate, and/or offer alternatives to
it. Whatever ends up making the most sense, Then we should advocate
it. Whatever we as a community decide to do, we can’t stay
here.