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Linux desktop software gets corporate backing

A team of major computing companies and programmers will announce tomorrow an expanded effort to improve Gnome, one of the two prevailing desktop user interfaces for Linux.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
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A team of major computing companies and programmers will announce tomorrow an expanded effort to improve Gnome, one of the two prevailing desktop user interfaces for Linux.

Gnome founder Miguel de Icaza is scheduled to announce tomorrow the formation of the Gnome Foundation, a group that will lead the software project and provide an avenue for corporate influence and funding, according to sources and documents about the plan. The foundation also will determine what software packages will be part of Gnome and will control future releases of the software, according to a draft charter obtained by CNET News.com.

The foundation has opened the door to numerous corporations, including Sun Microsystems, VA Linux Systems, Collab.Net, Compaq Computer and IBM. Also included are companies that have had direct involvement with Gnome, such as Red Hat, Gnumatic, Henzai, Eazel and Helix Code, all of which will be members of the foundation's advisory board, sources said.

The foundation also includes participation by the Free Software Foundation, a pioneer of open-source software, and the Object Management Group, an organization devoted to making programs able to communicate with each other in standard ways.

The effort will give more backing to the Gnome effort, but it won't unify with its main competitor, KDE. KDE is used in versions of Linux from SuSE, Corel and Caldera, ships by default on IBM laptops using Linux, and is included as an installation option with Red Hat's version of Linux.

Linux has been successful in the server area, where its progenitor, Unix, grew up. It's been less successful taking on Microsoft on desktop computers, however, where Windows is dominant. Linux has been hobbled by awkward installation, the lack of software such as games or Quicken, and easy-to-use configuration software such as Mac OS's control panel. Programmers have been addressing these weaknesses, though, and their efforts are beginning to bear fruit.

The split between KDE and Gnome is awkward because programmers writing software such as Gnumatic's money management package, GnuCash, or Eazel's simplified user interface must decide which software to use. Gnome and KDE each come with a different set of underlying programming components, Gnome using a package called GTK and KDE using QT.

A future version of the Gnome user interface will be adopted by Sun Microsystems for its Solaris operating system, and Sun will contribute more than 50 programmers to the effort to advance Gnome, sources familiar with the plans said. Sun uses the CDE user interface but will first add Gnome, then eventually make it the default.

In addition, Sun's StarOffice package will be tied more tightly with Gnome, sources said. StarOffice competes with Microsoft Office and includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software and other office applications.

StarOffice will adopt a Gnome technology called Bonobo, a "component model" similar to Microsoft's COM software that lets one program use components of another program. For example, an email program could use Netscape's upcoming Gecko engine to display email formatted in HTML. Or an instant messaging program could call on the spell-checking component of a word processor.

The corporate involvement drew a mixed reaction. Mark Galassi, an operating system programmer who helped create the foundations of Gnome, fears that programmers working on open-source projects could be hobbled by corporate agendas.

The best way to have corporate involvement in open-source projects is to have the companies fund people to do whatever work they want, Galassi said. For example, he said it appears de Icaza's updates to the Gnome software have diminished since he helped co-found Helix Code.

"Gnome continues to make a lot of progress, but the people contributing are not making as much progress as they used to," Galassi said.

But in many ways corporate sponsorship isn't universally bad. Companies such as VA helped Intel build support for its upcoming Itanium processor without releasing proprietary information too early to the vast open-source community.

SuSE's support of KDE has helped advance that software. And corporate adoption of Linux by Red Hat, Transmeta, IBM and other major computing companies has raised the profile of Linux while expanding it to computers such as four-processor servers that volunteers have a difficult time finding.