Can We Avoid the Great Schism?

Choice is an important element of free software, so it's perhaps no surprise that even at the level of the desktop environment there is more than one offering. But the main alternatives – KDE and GNOME – represent more than just a way of placing icons on a screen. Nowhere is that more evident than in their respective views on Microsoft's OOXML document standard, which are very far apart – perhaps dangerously so.

Here's what the KDE side says:

Recently, the ISO standardisation process of OfficeOpenXML ("OOXML") has gained a lot of public attention. What are the implications of OpenXML as ISO standard next to ODF for Free Software applications?

The standardisation process of OfficeOpenXML has turned sour, not in the least because Microsoft couldn't resist the temptation to cheat. Right now we're seeing evidence of a concerted campaign at discrediting OpenDocument vis-a-vis OfficeOpen XML. That's unfortunate, to say the least.

If OfficeOpen XML becomes an ISO standard, we will, in all likely hood, still not spend time on supporting it. The standard is enormous, very complex and to a large extent so badly specified that a full implementation is probably even harder than implementing the old Microsoft binary file formats. Add to that patent encumbrances and problems with copyrighted elements -- and our conclusion is that we prefer to concentrate on making KOffice a great set of applications that are satisfying to use and satisfying to develop.

And here are the views of Miguel de Icaza, one of the key people in the GNOME world:

OOXML is a superb standard and yet, it has been FUDed so badly by its competitors that serious people believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with it. This is at a time when OOXML as a spec is in much better shape than any other spec on that space.

This has led to a rather crude characterisation of the situation as KDE on the side of the angels and GNOME on that of the devil. Whether or not you agree with that position, there is a deep historical irony that things are being framed by some in this way.

When the K Desktop Environment was first announced in October 1996, it was not greeted with the universal approval that its creator, Matthias Ettrich, had hoped for. Alongside traditionalists who thought that any kind of graphical user interface was “too Windows-like” or just downright “sissy”, there was a deeper concern over the licensing of the underlying toolkit, Trolltech's Qt, which was free as in beer to hackers, but not free as in freedom. As Ettrich told me in 2000:

Everybody joining looked at alternatives [to Qt], and we had a long discussion: Shall we go with Qt? And the result was [we decided] it's the best technical solution if we want to reach the goal that we have.

Since Trolltech refused to adopt the GNU GPL for Qt (at that point: it did later), and since the KDE project refused to drop Qt, many hackers decided that they had to start a rival desktop project that would be truly free. One of the people thinking along these lines was Miguel de Icaza, who ended up leading a global team to create a desktop environment – although that was hardly his original intention:

Initially we were hoping that the existence of the project would make [Trolltech] change their minds, but they didn't. So we just kept working and working until we actually had something to use.

That “something to use” grew into GNOME, a rich, full-featured desktop environment, just as KDE had done, until the free software world found itself with the luxury – some would say liability – of two approaches.

The details of their rivalry are not relevant here; what matters is that in the beginning GNOME was clearly perceived as the saviour of the free software movement, with de Icaza as its knight in shining armour, which is rather at odds with a current widely-held view on his place in the hacker pantheon.

The point here is not to take sides on this question, but to demonstrate the amazing and pernicious effects of Microsoft's recent engagement with the open source world. The growing tensions between the KDE and GNOME camps are just part of that: another facet is the split of companies into those who believe that intellectual monopoly deals with Microsoft are a good idea (Novell, Xandros, Turbolinux) and those who do not (Red Hat, Ubuntu, etc.).

The result is a growing schism that can only serve Microsoft's interests. Unfortunately, this is one area where we don't have a choice: we need to heal the rift. The question is, How?

Glyn Moody writes about open source at opendotdotdot.

Glyn Moody has been writing about the internet since 1994, and about free software since 1995. In 1997, he wrote the first mainstream feature about GNU/Linux and free software, which appeared in Wired. In 2001, his book Rebel Code: Linux And The Open Source Revolution was published. Since then, he has written widely about free software and digital rights. He has a blog, and he is active on social media: @glynmoody on Twitter.

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