KDE and Gnome

A quick look at two projects designed to make the administration and usage of a Linux system easier for beginners.

Miguel de Icaza, head of the Midnight Commander development group, also seems to be at the helm of the new GNOME development project, which has goals similar to those of KDE, with one difference: the project is composed completely of GNU-style free software. This project is based upon the GTK toolkit, the free successor to Motif in the GIMP development efforts. The project arose as a direct response to the KDE efforts, and the GNOME developers have borrowed some code from KDE for a few of the applets.

As of mid-January (version 0.12) GNOME as a whole isn't really suitable for actual use, but several of the applets function well and the future looks bright for the project. Miguel de Icaza is in the process of porting the Midnight Commander file-manager to GTK, which will allow it to fit in with the remainder of the GNOME applications.

The Panel applet, written primarily by Federico Meña Quintero, is an icon-bar and program-launcher which is located at the bottom edge of the screen. It features cascading menus which could be a substitute for the usual window-manager root menus. Most of the GNOME applets have been included in the default menu of Panel, allowing this applet to serve as an entry-point to the GNOME installation. It takes a little fiddling around to get the hang of using Panel, so don't give up if at first glance it seems like nothing is working.

The provided applets include a desktop manager (which in part serves as an interface to the Xlockmore screensaver), CroMagnon (an interface to the crontab utility), an audio mixer, an interface to the elaborate LinuxConf configuration manager, several nicely-done games (some of which were adapted from KDE), a calculator and several others.

One major difference between GNOME and KDE is that KDE includes a window manager, whereas GNOME doesn't. GNOME is designed to cooperate with the user's current window manager. This may make GNOME more appealing to seasoned users who have extensively customized their window-manager resource files.


As I write this, only the source code is available for GNOME 0.12, and it's tricky to compile. Several GNU utilities, such as gettext, guile and SLIB, must be correctly installed in order for a compilation to complete successfully. An intel-Linux binary archive of the 0.9 release is available from ftp://ftp.nuclecu.unam.mx/GNOME, but I would recommend waiting a while for either an updated binary release or an easier-to-build source release. Another drawback is the lack of any man pages or help files. The developers are hard at work these days (judging by their mailing-list postings), and I think, given time, that something both interesting and usable will appear.

Though KDE is closer to being “finished” (if such a state even exists in the realm of software), it still has a way to go. Development is proceeding rapidly, and I imagine that sometime this year a more polished release will become available.

The fate of a free-software project is interesting because of the inherent unpredictability. Anyone can start one, but whether it comes to fruition or withers on the vine is up to the inscrutable software gods. The timing may be just right (i.e., the software addresses many users' and developers' needs), but convincing enough programmers with time and inclination to become involved just can't be forced or foretold. These two projects seem to have attained that essential momentum, and hopefully we shall see them evolve further.

Larry Ayers (layers@marktwain.net.) lives on a small farm in northern Missouri, where he raises sheep, shiitake and shell-scripts.