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Rift persists between Linux interface camps

The arrival of major corporate backing to boost the Gnome desktop user interface for Linux won't do much to unify support for a competing effort called KDE, several key executives say.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--The arrival today of major corporate backing to boost the Gnome desktop user interface for Linux won't do much to unify support for a competing effort called KDE, several key executives said.

Legal and cultural issues separate the Gnome and KDE efforts, said Haarvard Nord, chief executive of Oslo-based Troll Tech, the company that created the underlying software components used by KDE and by applications that run on KDE.

"This whole KDE-Gnome war--it's just plain silly," Nord said. He'd like to see a merger, but added, "It does not seem likely."

Miguel de Icaza, founder of Gnome and chairman of Gnome software company Helix Code, also does not expect a merger, he said at a news conference today at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo.

As expected, a raft of corporations today announced membership in the newly created Gnome Foundation that will control the interface. The companies include Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard, both of which will gradually make Gnome the default interface for their versions of Unix. Also on board are TurboLinux, Red Hat, Compaq Computer, IBM, Eazel, Helix Code, VA Linux Systems, Henzai, Gnumatic and two nonprofit organizations--the Object Management Group and the Free Software Foundation.

Having two desktop interfaces means programmers writing software such as a word processor must choose which system to support, and computer users much decide which they prefer. Programs written for one generally will work within the other, however, so it's not as deep a divide as the difference between Mac OS and Windows, for example.

Having two independent efforts helps both by providing "cross pollination" and fostering competition, said Nat Friedman, president of Helix Code.

Added Bob Young, chairman of Red Hat, "It's fair to say Gnome is much better as a result of the KDE project, and KDE is a great deal better because of Gnome."

Meanwhile, the debate is expanding from desktop computers--where Gnome and KDE compete with Microsoft Windows and Mac OS--to a range of other devices. Trolltech announced new software called Qt/Embedded for building graphical interfaces for gadgets such as Ericsson's Linux-based screen phone.

Gnome believes its software will scale down to Palm-sized handheld computers. Henzai is building just such a device with Gnome and Linux.

Much of the difference in choosing between Gnome and KDE comes down to using underlying toolkits, collections of prewritten software that let people create objects such as scroll bars. KDE uses software called Qt from Trolltech, whereas Gnome uses a package called GTK.

An effort to unify KDE and Gnome would be easier with the merger or some type of compatibility between these underlying software technologies. That merger or compatibility is difficult because GTK and Qt, called libraries, are released under different licenses and use totally different programming code.

Owen Taylor, the Red Hat employee responsible for maintaining GTK, said he stays in touch with Qt programmers so the two packages have similar abilities and features such as the ability to drag text from a Gnome program and drop it into a KDE program. However, he added, "There's no way we can merge the toolkits."

Trolltech's Nord believes it might actually be possible, at least in theory. To that end, Trolltech is changing the license under which Qt is released so that it will be compatible with the General Public License that governs GTK.

But the deeper CNET's Linux Centerissue is cultural. There are two camps, and bad feelings toward Trolltech remain from the days when Qt was governed by a more proprietary license. "For many people, Trolltech is a red flag," Nord said.

Trolltech isn't likely to switch to the GPL for Qt, he said, because that would require Trolltech to change its business model, Nord said. Currently, the company requires other companies to pay Trolltech if they distribute Qt as part of a product that's sold. If the product is free, Trolltech doesn't charge.

Young said Red Hat installs Gnome by default but supports KDE as well because many customers prefer it. VA Linux Systems, a maker of Linux computers, has the same position, said Chris DiBona, director of marketing at VA.

Jim Gettys, a Compaq employee who years ago wrote much of the X Window system for Unix that provides graphical user interface basics deeper than KDE and Gnome, sees things from a larger perspective. The graphical user interfaces for Unix and Linux are not merely moving ahead for ordinary desktop use, but also for gadgets and other computing devices, he said.

"I would like to thank the hackers here for working on completing our vision," he said.