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Red Hat's new Linux seeks to unify

The Linux maker's version 8 tries to standardize the user interface to make the OS appeal to corporate PC users. Some open-source diehards say that's a crime.

Red Hat has begun an effort to use its position as the dominant seller of the Linux operating system to try to smooth over a long-running divide about the look and feel of the OS.

The company Monday unveiled Red Hat Linux version 8, which includes a new interface called Bluecurve that highlights Red Hat's focus on desktop users. In the past, Linux has been used chiefly for servers, but with the new version Red Hat is gunning for corporate PC users who don't need all the features of Windows PCs.

To make Linux more palatable to corporate users, Red Hat, the top Linux seller according to market researcher IDC, decided it was time to settle on a single look.

For years, desktop Linux users have been faced with a choice between two graphical interfaces--Gnome and KDE. While the two interfaces perform roughly the same function, they look very different and are managed differently. Each one includes not only basic components such as icons and scroll bars but also higher-level Web browsers, file managers, e-mail software and office software.

Red Hat's Bluecurve airbrushes out some differences between KDE and Gnome, altering icons and menu selections KDE or Gnome users would otherwise see and making them look the same.

"If Red Hat can come in and force a peace on the situation, it may not be viewed wonderfully in the community, but it may go a long way toward establishing Linux on the desktop," Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg said.

Putting a calmer exterior on the roiling Linux programming community is an important part of Red Hat's appealing to corporate buyers who currently use Microsoft Windows for the vast majority of their PCs.

For operating systems sold to run on PCs, Windows had 95 percent market share in 2001, with 2.4 percent for Mac OS and 0.5 percent for Linux, IDC said.

Software companies in particular are likely to enjoy having a single "style guide" such as those possessed by Apple's Mac OS and Microsoft's Windows that set basic rules such as how to select menu options with a keyboard, what a window looks like, and what happens after right-clicking with a mouse.

"If application vendors get the sense that Red Hat is adopting a single standard, and they can write to it and build some applications, that's the way the market is going to go," Gartenberg said.

But not all are happy, including KDE programmer Bernhard "bero" Rosenkraenzer, who quit Red Hat in part because of how the company treated KDE. Although Rosenkraenzer said in an e-mail that he agrees with Red Hat's choice to make KDE and Gnome look the same, he told developers "I don't want to work on crippling KDE" while explaining why he left Red Hat.

Red Hat, though, says the changes are largely cosmetic. The original software hasn't been removed. Mostly, the company has stepped in to assert some control over the default desktop experience.

United we stand
"It's an effort to unify the look and feel," said Erik Troan, Red Hat's director of product marketing. "Users shouldn't have to worry about which (interface) to choose," and programs should work the same on either Gnome or KDE.

Linux is a clone of the Unix operating system, but instead of being a proprietary product it's developed collectively by a community of open-source programmers who share their work. Different people rule different domains--for example, founder Linus Torvalds still is master of the kernel at the heart of Linux--but there is no single master controlling the overall collection of software packages.

Red Hat 8 will begin shipping Monday, costing $39.95 for a basic version and $149.95 for a professional version with more included software and support. Free "ISO" files also may be downloaded, out of which people can construct installation CD-ROMs, but that version includes no support or printed instruction manuals.

The new version also will ship on a single DVD-ROM, Red Hat said.

KDE and Gnome each has had its own advocates. Both have grown steadily more polished, with Gnome reaching the 2.0 milestone and KDE the 3.0 mark in recent months.

Red Hat has shipped with both but has preferred Gnome. In earlier years, some components of KDE were covered by a software license to which Red Hat and others in the open-source community objected, but that license was changed.

Many in the open-source movement love the idea of multiple different options. Competition will keep software improving faster, they argue, and having choices will mean different users can choose what's best for their needs.

But some believe choice is still alive and well.

"The experienced power user who doesn't decide to stick with Bluecurve can still customize to their heart's content in the time-honored Linux tradition," said Dax Kelson of Linux training center Guru Labs. "I think the controversy is overblown."

Duplicative projects, though, can dilute programmers' efforts and distract from the ultimate goal of taking on Microsoft, Jupiter's Gartenberg said.

"The fact that the Linux community is unable to come up with a basic standard to rally around is the kind of stuff that makes (Microsoft Chief Executive) Steve Ballmer smile," Gartenberg said.