Software that 'just works'

February 22, 2003

First, there was one major desktop environment for Linux users - KDE. From the point of view of the open source community there was one problem with KDE - the Qt libraries. The licensing terms did not meet the requirements of the GNU licence.

Not that this got in the way of KDE being given away freely. There was much talk about what could happen if Trolltech, the owner of Qt, enforced the licence terms, but that never happened.

The GNOME project began in August 1997, to create, in its own words "an entirely free desktop environment for free systems." Basically, it had the same aims as KDE. But it was free from the start with no possible licensing problems.

Much later, the Qt owners, Trolltech, released their product under an open source licence. By then every Linux distribution had its own favourite default desktop environment, most opting for KDE.

GNOME has, however, always been the default for the most widely used and best known distribution, RedHat. Alongside this Ximian has emerged to increase industry adoption of the GNOME desktop.

Jeff Waugh is the release manager for the GNOME project. He calls himself "the head beekeeper of the GNOME release team", a member of the GNOME Foundation Board, and president of the Sydney Linux Users Group.

An independent IT consultant specialising in Open Source software solutions, Jeff took time off after the release of GNOME 2.2 recently to talk about the project.

He chose to paint the situation that exists between GNOME and KDE as a picture of glorious harmony - but then one can only ask questions. One can't dictate answers.

Let's have an idea of Australian contributions to GNOME and a few words about the recent 2.2 release.

There are two main Australian developers:

  • James Henstridge (Perth) has contributed some of the crucial elements of the GNOME platform and maintains our Python bindings, which allow developers to write GNOME software in the Python scripting language. These are in use by Red Hat, and many third party developers. Much of his work relates to rapid application development infrastructure for GNOME.
  • Malcolm Tredinnick (Sydney) seems to delight in doing all the finicky and difficult work that no one else wants to do, especially with regards to documentation and internationalisation.

We also have a surprising number of Aussie expats working on GNOME, and a huge base of casual contributors and testers locally - far too many to name!

The 2.2 release came out early this month, to the delight of our users and critics. Not only did we succeed in putting out a quality release on time, we actually packed a six-month process into five, and received a lot of praise for achieving our goal of simple software that "just works". You can find out more on our 2.2 start page and release notes.

Give us a brief overview of the Gnome project and its relationship with Ximian.

GNOME is an international Open Source project, developing a complete and easy-to-use desktop environment for GNU/Linux and other Unix or Unix-like operating systems. To our users, it's an awesome desktop environment that provides games, office applications, Internet and web connectivity, and all sorts of cool features. To our developers, the platform encompasses a huge set of useful libraries from which to build new programs - more GNOME software is available every day!

One of the great things about GNOME is the broad community of developers, users and contributing companies working together to make it better. Hundreds of volunteer programmers, documenters, testers and translators work on GNOME, as well as employees from supporting companies such as Red Hat, CodeFactory, Sun Microsystems, IBM, Hewlett Packard (Compaq), Ximian and MandrakeSoft.

It's a rapidly expanding family!

Gnome came on the scene after KDE. What was the rationale for having another desktop environment for what is essentially a very small bunch of users?

Originally, KDE was based on a toolkit (the underlying software that allows developers to write GUI programs) that was not released under an Open Source license. That was difficult for both idealists and pragmatists: developers with strong views about Free Software (the more politically charged term for Open Source software) refused to use or contribute to KDE, and commercial distributions could not ship it entirely legally. GNOME was soon started as a completely free and Open Source alternative.

Now that KDE's toolkit (Qt, by Trolltech) has been released under a fully Open Source license, these issues have been relegated to geek history. GNOME, having built a substantial user and developer base with the support and contributions of many companies, continues on.

I'm sure that contributors to both projects would strongly disagree with your assertion that we target "a very small bunch of users". KDE and GNOME already have hundreds of thousands of users, if not more so - it's very hard to count users of Open Source software. A pertinent quote from Jon "maddog" Hall on this very issue:

"There are over 6 billion people in the world, and approximately 500 million have 'chosen' their desktop operating system. That means around 5.5 billion people have yet to choose their desktop operating system, and we have to get them before Bill does."
GNOME and KDE are aiming for the stars.

What reason would you advance to explain the large number of applications from Gnome which figure in Red Hat's so-called unified desktop?

In the corporate desktop market, users primarily rely on three kinds of programs: web browsers, office suites, and 'groupware' applications (which generally include email, calendars and contact lists). The "Big Three" in the Open Source world are the Mozilla web browser, the productivity suite, and the Evolution groupware client. Of the three, only Evolution is based on GNOME.

Red Hat have chosen to support these 'best of breed' applications for all their users, allowing them to provide better support and ensure greater compatibility across their distribution.

What kind of a relationship does the Gnome team have with their counterparts at KDE?

We get on really well. There were understandable tensions early on, but those have all but disappeared amongst the developers of each desktop. We often meet up at major conferences, and even share some of the more 'amusing' flame email we receive at our webmaster@ addresses.

Both projects are cooperating on interoperability and development of standards for the Open Source desktop through, and we share a number of technologies such as GNOME's high performance, standards-compliant XML libraries (see, and the GStreamer multimedia framework.

A lot of the Open Source desktop 'war' mythology is perpetrated by the binary attentions of an over-eager and under-entertained IT press - while it sounds interesting, it's not something the developers participate in.

How come Gnome hasn't managed to avoid the bloat which is something that one abhors in systems like Windows? (for that matter, neither has KDE but then you wouldn't be in a position to answer that)

How I wish "bloat" had a well-defined meaning for software engineers - it would make bug reports so much easier to understand! I guess you're asking about how 'heavy' the software feels, and the complexity of the user interface? You'll be pleased to know that with the recent 2.0 and 2.2 releases, we've improved greatly on these fronts:

  • GNOME 2.x is slimmer and faster than previous versions. The hardware requirements have been reduced, and many of our users have commented on the speedier user interface.
  • Even more impressive is our newly streamlined and minimal user interface, and the change of attitude required to achieve it. Our goal is simple software that "just works" - in the widely distributed and developer-oriented context of Open Source, that is a major achievement.

Here's a question which I asked Shawn Gordon - I see something of the traditional US vs Europe enmity in the whole Gnome vs KDE thing. Is that a far-fetched comparison?

I believe so. The reality is that both projects attract huge numbers of contributors (both volunteer and corporate) from around the world, and the Open Source community is very good at avoiding geopolitical or racial disagreements. I was surprised to read such ill-informed comments about the KDE and GNOME communities in Shawn's interview - very disappointing to see an industry figure participating in such mistruths.

As an illustration of GNOME's international appeal, here's a quick summary of our growth: The credits file for one of GNOME's earliest releases lists a Canadian, two Mexicans, a German and a Czech as the entire development team. Today, we officially support 33 language translations (and many more in the process), with hundreds of regular contributors to all aspects of GNOME.

What's your view - or that of the Gnome team - about Mono? I've sought some answers from Miguel de Icaza but he seems to be too busy to answer them.

The Mono project aims to complete a fully-compatible, Open Source implementation of Microsoft's .NET developer framework, which includes the C# language, the common language runtime, and the crucial class libraries provided by .NET.

It's a forward-looking project; heavily under development, but moving very quickly towards completion. Miguel has an incredible talent for inspiring groups of programmers to team up and achieve the impossible.

I can't speak for the entire GNOME project, but I do know that there is some concern about following the "Microsoft Path". There's also a lot of tentative interest - Will it work? Will Microsoft fight back? Is this the best technology we can choose? It has certainly attracted some great coders.

Personally, I'm pretty excited. Regardless of whether GNOME uses it or not, it will allow Microsoft platform developers to easily port their software to GNU/Linux and other systems Mono supports, and hopefully see and enjoy the huge benefits of Free Software and Open Source.