Enterprise Unix Roundup: Is 'Choice' a Dirty Word for Enterprise Desktops?

By Michael Hall (Send Email)
Posted Apr 1, 2004


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As GNOME rolls out a new version and KDE rolls along, will it be winner take all in the enterprise space? The Fedora project released Fedora Core 2, Pixar unleashed RenderMan Pro Server for OS X, and Mandrake is back and ready to rev. For those who have chafed under the 'files only' restrictions of the old standby, tee, we show you how to tee-up process pipes with tee2.

Once upon a time, the Unix world seemed to know where it stood on the question of desktops: There was a Common Desktop Environment (CDE), and it was what people used -- even if it was hard on the eyes and even if it did eventually stagnate. It was the product of a Unix industry trying to agree on something useful before deciding it was more fun to manipulate industry standards with the cynical abandon one expects from warring crime families. To quote a younger and rasher Roundup writer, "If ever an interface managed to bring to computing the same design standards that went into, say, the platypus, CDE is it."

CDE has largely given way to two desktop environments: GNOME, which was this week released as version 2.6, has replaced CDE on Solaris. KDE, the slightly older of the two desktop projects, released its latest version a few months ago and is as ubiquitous as GNOME among Linux distributions. The presence of two robust GUIs in the Linux space has caused its share of squabbling among the kind of people who get worked up about GUIs at all because, as much as "competition good, choice good" is a Linux mantra, there's an underlying sense that eventually all of the distributors will default to the same GUI. The option of installing a different distro will likely remain, even if it's not very well integrated or supported by the vendor.

There are practical reasons for this intuition, not the least of which is that each GUI runs on a different toolkit (i.e., KDE on TrollTech's Open Source Qt, GNOME on the Free Software GTK) and has its own way of doing everything from browsing the files in a directory to enabling applications communicate with each other.

Among enthusiasts and home desktop users, the Linux world's "two desktop solution" will probably hold indefinitely. Both projects have long-term momentum and vigorous user and developer communities. On the enterprise Unix desktop, GNOME appears, at least in the short term, to have won out. GNOME's early embrace of enterprise partners never elicited more from the KDE project than a confused and moribund attempt at parity in the form of the KDE League. GNOME's partnerships paid off, initially in the form of Sun's concentration of efforts on usability studies for GNOME and its brief investment in GNOME-related companies. This resulted in Sun's long-term adoption of the GNOME desktop for Solaris and the Java Desktop System.

With Novell's absorption of SUSE (Red Hat's only meaningful competitor in terms of enterprise application support, and a major KDE champion) and Ximian (a company with deep roots in the GNOME project and a decided emphasis on developing software that uses the libraries that drive GNOME), the vendor will likely move gingerly but implacably to have its interface experts at Ximian set the tone for how SUSE's GUI works. The more we think about it, the more we believe "integrating" the two environments will amount to SUSE's Qt-based YaST configuration tool looking a lot like the Ximian GNOME-based desktop, which we suspect will be the default offering for Novell's Linux customers. KDE will surely still be in there somewhere, available for users who care to look. However, outside the server rooms and labs that will be precious few people.

As a footnote, the consumer market paints a different picture. Signs abound that indicate there is room for more than one desktop environment in the second coming of the Linux retail space (carried forward by Xandros, Lindows, and Mandrake). Enterprise customers will have far less patience for the expense and training required to support similar yet distinct interfaces. And really, why should they?

In Other News

» The Fedora project, a community-driven spin-off of Red Hat's former retail distribution, released Fedora Core 2, test2. So what, you say. The new beta release includes Linux kernel 2.6 and, more interestingly, SE Linux, a set of enhancements that give Linux a more fine-grained, role-based security scheme than the traditional Unix user/group/permissions scheme.

» Mandrake is out of bankruptcy and readying Mandrake Linux 10.0 for release.

» Pixar unleashed RenderMan Pro Server for OS X. The new release supports both G4- and G5-based systems.

» Nostalgia Note: Once upon a time there weren't many good choices for running a Unix on x86 hardware. We turned to DR DOS because it had a shell with some Unix ideas at work. So, we were made misty when we learned DR-DOS 8, now fronted as a good pick for embedded systems, has been released. The operating system includes FAT32 and Linux filesystem support.

» SCOWatch: This week SCO made a motion to split its suit with IBM, which could have the effect of breaking IBM's counterclaims of patent infringement into a separate trial. IBM has filed its own motion for a declaratory judgement, which, if approved, would result in SCO's case being tossed out once a judge considered the evidence and before the actual trial begins.

One of SCO's licensees, EV1 Servers, seems to be suffering buyer's remorse: In an interview with IDG News, the company's CEO said he wouldn't buy SCO's licenses given a second chance. He also disputes SCO's claims of a "seven figure deal," which confirms our earlier suspicions about the likely deep, deep discounts on the $20 million SCO would have made off a full-price license purchase from EV1.

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