Did Linus Jump Too Soon?

by Glyn Moody

One of the many great things about Linus is that he doesn't bottle it up: he speaks his mind on things that matter to him, without worrying overly about what others might say as a result. And when he mentioned in the course of an interview that he had switched from KDE to GNOME, others soon had plenty to say on the subject. But I don't want to revisit those arguments about which is better today: instead, I want to explore the possibility that Linus decided to jump to GNOME at precisely the time when KDE could soon leapfrog it in important ways.

What has struck me while all the firestorm over Linus' comments and the relative merits of GNOME and KDE has been raging, is that meanwhile, in the background, a couple of very significant developments that might change the state of play in the area of free desktops have been taking place.

The first is the decision by Nokia to release Qt under the LGPL. As I've written elsewhere, this represents the latest stage in a pretty extraordinary journey by the creators of Qt, from proprietary, to non-GPL open source, then to GPL and now LGPL. The importance of that move is not so much on the PC as for other form factors, such as mobile phones. As Mark Shuttleworth was quoted as saying in the Nokia press release announcing the move:

"Qt is used extensively in Kubuntu and KDE applications, and Canonical is delighted to see this breakthrough in its licensing model," said Mark Shuttleworth, founder of the Ubuntu project. "Qt's new licensing terms will help us deliver ever more 'lustful' applications to users. Nokia's continued investment in cross-platform Qt libraries, and the Linux platform, is a major driver of innovation in the free software desktop and mobile device stack."

Already, there are hints of Ubuntu Mobile Internet Device (MID) Edition moving from GNOME to KDE.

Given that the Ubuntu MID Edition is being repositioned to serve the emerging netbook sector, that move assumes an added importance since it may well be through netbooks, rather than desktops, that general users are introduced to GNU/Linux – not so much as a replacement for Windows, but alongside on this new class of machine.

This is one of the interesting facts to emerge from a recent piece of market research (pdf) carried out by PriceGrabber.com:

One in 10 online users own a netbook, 75 percent own a laptop and 83 percent own a desktop (see Table 4). Of those consumers who indicate owning a netbook, 91 percent also own a laptop and 87 percent also own a desktop. Most netbook owners have all three form factors most likely because each serves a distinct purpose.

The netbook claims to be different, not better, than other mobile Internet devices on the market. It may not compromise price and portability, but it does compromise processing speed, comfort and battery life. With a slower processor and two and a half hours of battery life, it cannot run complex local computing applications and it generally will not serve as a practical device for everyday productivity.

The other development is not so much recent, as a continuing project: the native porting of the KDE applications to Windows. At first sight it might appear to work against the interests of free software to allow Windows users to use KDE programs. But I have long been of the view that the best way to convert people to GNU/Linux from Windows is to convert them first to cross-platform applications like Firefox, OpenOffice.org and Thunderbird. Once they are familiar with these, it should be much easier to switch them across to the same apps running on GNU/Linux. In other words, this breaks up the move into smaller, less painful steps.

Viewed in this context, the appearance of KDE apps on Windows could be a huge boon to GNU/Linux. For this takes the idea a stage further by offering a much broader set of integrated applications on both platforms. This would make switching between the Windows and GNU/Linux versions even simpler than it would using separately-developed programs. It would be an even bigger win for KDE, since Windows users, once on GNU/Linux, would be unlikely to move across to GNOME without any clear need to do so.

What interests me about both these developments is that they are essentially orthogonal to all the arguments raging around the comment from Linus. They are about the future, not the present. And in any case, as Linus has shown in the past, he's not wedded to any one desktop platform: as soon as something better comes along, he'll probably have no compunction in moving again. It's best to regard his recent action is provisional, and likely to be flipped as soon as KDE provides him with a reason to change his mind. Given the innovative work occuring around the main KDE code, maybe it won't be too long before he jumps back the other way – and sparks off another flamewar that sadly generates more heat than light.

Glyn Moody writes about open source at opendotdotdot.