Upgrade timing demotes KDE variant of Ubuntu Linux

Only GNOME-based Ubuntu will get Canonical's long-term support, because KDE 3.5 is too old, and 4.0 is not mature enough yet to use in Kubuntu.

There are two dominant software projects that provide Linux with a graphical user interface, but only one of them will get long-term support in Ubuntu's next version of the open-source operating system.

GNOME, the default user interface for Ubuntu, will receive the support, but KDE won't. The reason, according to Canonical, which sponsors Ubuntu and is trying to make a business of selling the support contracts, is simply that KDE is at an awkward transitional period between two versions, the old-line 3.5 and the imminent and significantly different 4.0.

Developer interest is focused on KDE 4.0, but it's not mature enough yet to use in the next KDE-based variation of Ubuntu, called Kubuntu, Scott James Remnant, leader of the Ubuntu Desktop team, said in an explanation to a Kubuntu mailing list. But most Kubuntu developers adding features "upstream" of today's products are focused on KDE 4.0, meaning that it's risky to release a long-term support version based on 3.5.

"Given the attention being paid to KDE 4, it is difficult to believe that this will not be the preferred release in three years' time," Remnant said. "The KDE upstream position appears clear: KDE 4 is the focus of developer attention; KDE 3.5 will be supported as long as KDE 4 isn't suitable for support."

Even though I'm among those who prefer KDE overall, I think Canonical's decision is sensible under the circumstances. And maybe, if we're lucky, this choice will be one small step toward moving beyond the problem that there have to be different Ubuntu flavors with different user interfaces in the first place. But more on that later.

Ubuntu 8.04, aka "Hardy Heron" and due in April 2008 , will become the second version of Ubuntu Linux to receive Canonical's long-term support (LTS) designation. Most Ubuntu versions are supported for 18 months, but LTS products are supported for three years for desktop machines and five years for servers.

GNOME-based Ubuntu more popular
GNOME is dominant among Ubuntu users, accounting for about two-thirds of Ubuntu downloads, according to .

The remaining third using KDE are a sizable minority, though, and Shuttleworth has taken pains to reassure them that KDE is a priority. Notably, in 2006, Shuttleworth became the first KDE "patron". He's since been joined by four other patron-level KDE sponsors.

Canonical's commercial interests aren't always aligned with community programming-project priorities, Remnant said.

"LTS' is a commercial-support commitment provided by Canonical, who shoulders the financial and administrative burden of doing so; as such, it is entirely their decision as to whether or not they provide that support for a particular release," Remnant said. "It is difficult for this decision to be made by the community because the community's stake in Kubuntu is one of personal achievement and pride, whereas Canonical's is financial and of commercial commitments."

One Kubuntu community member, Juan Carlos Torres, said on his blog that he isn't terribly happy with the decision, but he urged programmers to channel their energies into improving Kubuntu based on KDE 4.0.

"Kubuntu doesn't have the manpower to aggressively maintain two KDE versions. With this, we can focus our efforts on KDE 4 (and migrating KDE 3 utilities to KDE 4)," he said. "As Kubuntu shifts its gears towards KDE 4, we need as many hands as we can get."

KDE 4.0 is due to be released January 18 at the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif.

Wasted energy
I see this GNOME-KDE desktop interface split as a terrible waste of energy. It's based more a historical licensing artifact rather than on some engineering breakthrough.

KDE had the early lead among Linux users, compared to Unix interface predecessors such as CDE (Common Desktop Environment), but Miguel de Icaza, among others, started the GNOME project because of open-source licensing concerns regarding a collection of KDE user interface elements called Qt. By the time Qt developer Trolltech liberalized the license terms, GNOME had taken root, with support from companies such as Red Hat.

Now Linux users are stuck not just with two user interfaces, but often two sets of accompanying control panels, music players, modem-dialing utilities, command-line interface consoles, Web browsers, and more.

That's a lot of duplicative work for programmers, but there are other repercussions. Software companies have to decide whether to build their software using Qt or the GNOME analog, GTK+. Linux distributions that ship with both are bulkier, and running both takes up more memory, as multiple libraries are loaded into RAM. New Linux users are faced with confusing inconsistencies.

Open-source fans have long argued that there's healthy competition between KDE and GNOME. That's probably true, to an extent, but I don't see the differences as particularly profound; even my allegiance to KDE is pretty thin. Frankly, the more interesting rival is XFCE (used in an Ubuntu variant called Xubuntu), a spartan, utilitarian interface that forsakes glitz in favor of working on machines without vast quantities of memory, and the latest processors and graphics chips.

But the real competition here is with Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS X. All this overlapping work on KDE and GNOME could be put to better use, matching or beating the innovation and performance of proprietary operating-system interfaces.

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About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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