Free Agent: Vive la Desktop Difference!

The Free Agent e-mail box fills each month with notes from people who are brand new to Linux. It is great to hear from so many people who are trying out Free Software for the first time, but sometimes the mail is predictable.

For instance, this has appeared in my inbox dozens of times: "Should I use KDE or Gnome?" Oh, how I have grown weary of this question. (It's a perennial favorite on newsgroups and forums, too.) Not that it's stupid at all--it's actually a natural question for a user arriving from the land of commercial operating systems, where you don't have this sort of choice. "What? You mean I have two interfaces to choose from?" Yeah, something like that. (I'll not confuse anyone with lesser-known alternatives at the moment.)

So, KDE or Gnome? Not a stupid question--but in my mind, kind of a silly one. Car/computer analogies always hold up well, so let's try one here: If you, dear reader, wrote in asking whether I think you should drive a Mini Cooper or a Hummer, how should I respond? My best bet is to offer no opinion. I know nothing of your preferences or your needs. Either vehicle will get you where you want to go. The difference will be in the experience of getting there. It's the same deal with KDE and Gnome.

Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux kernel, recently raised a stir on a public mailing list with some inflammatory comments about the Gnome desktop. He wrote, in part: "This 'users are idiots, and are confused by functionality' mentality of Gnome is a disease. If you think your users are idiots, only idiots will use it. I don't use Gnome, because in striving to be simple, it has long since reached the point where it simply doesn't do what I need it to do. Please, just tell people to use KDE."

This is a classic straw-man argument. I've met more than a few Gnome developers, and I watch their online discussions unfold all the time; I'm here to tell you that they don't believe that "users are idiots, and are confused by functionality." But it sure makes them sound misguided when you frame things that way, doesn't it?

A Bit of Gnomish History

Linus's real complaint about the Gnome desktop is an old one that first emerged when Gnome 2.0 was released. The Gnome 1.x series was a desktop built by geeks, for geeks. But for Gnome 2.0, the Gnome Human Interface Guidelines were adopted, and with them a new approach that basically decreed "simpler is better." Gnome became a desktop for everybody--at least, that was the intention. Plenty of geeks who like hundreds of settings to tweak felt abandoned and betrayed. So they jumped ship, many of them to KDE.

In Gnome's first few post-2.0 iterations, it's true that several useful features disappeared due to some overzealous simplification. But over time, all things come into balance, and so has it been with Gnome. In today's Gnome you find very sensible default settings wherever you turn. Where there are user-configurable preferences, they are simple and straightforward, both in their labeling and their presentation.

KDE, however, looks and feels like it never stopped being aimed squarely at geeks. For example, there's an item in the labyrinthine KDE Control Center that lets the user control how many seconds it takes before an auto-hiding panel disappears from the screen after the mouse pointer leaves the panel. There is no doubt in my mind that plenty of people out there love that setting and have invested time in discovering that they like a 3-second delay far more than a 2- or 4-second delay: I used to be like this.

But over time I decided that I preferred to do real work (mostly creative work) with my PC, rather than reconfigure it all the time. I'm not saying that I evolved; I'm making no value judgments here at all. I am, rather, identifying two kinds of users: those in the "keep it simple, stupid" camp, and those who want to play with every last toggle switch imaginable. Gnome is built for the former; KDE for the latter.

Side by Side

For comparison purposes, I've created two screen shots that show where you come to tweak sound settings for each desktop environment.

Gnome's approach to sound settings.
Gnome's approach to sound settings.
The first shows Gnome's Sound Preferences dialog box.

KDE's approach to sound settings.
KDE's approach to sound settings.
The second shows the Sound System pane of the KDE Control Center.

Gnome's approach is spartan; KDE's has enough explanatory text to fill the first chapter of the Great American Novel. (If a Gnome developer ever proposed such a dialog box, he'd be tarred and feathered and run out of town.)

I know which dialog box I'd prefer to work with, because I like things simple. I certainly know which one my father would prefer to work with, because I know the KDE approach would scare the heck out of him. We'll take the Mini Cooper, thanks. But if you want the Hummer, you're welcome to it.

For another comparison of KDE and Gnome's differing approaches, see my screen shots of their file managers in my November column.

I imagine Linus would choose the Hummer interface, so when Gnome went all Mini Cooper-like on him back at 2.0 (or thereabouts), he switched vehicles and never looked back. A lot of geeks did the same, and when you ask them why they dislike Gnome, they come up with stuff like the following, taken from another recent Linus posting, this time about Gnome's Open and Save dialogs: "Apparently it's too 'confusing' to let users just type the filename. So Gnome forces you to do the icon selection thing, never mind that it's a million times slower."

Here's the problem with that argument: Current Gnome desktops force you to do no such thing. If you hit Ctrl-L, a path entry box appears, and a geek like Linus can type in a full path name (complete with tab completion, if you're into that sort of thing). Does that extra Ctrl-L keystroke hurt geeks? I'm guessing not. These are people who are happy to hit Ctrl-X Ctrl-S to save their work in the Emacs text editor. And as for "typical" users--and certainly new Linux users-- they are perfectly happy to point and click, drilling down to the file or folder they seek, even though it's a "million times slower" to work this way. It may be slower, but this approach is familiar and unthreatening, unlike the Unix-y path name Linus wants to bang out.

As I said a moment ago, Gnome 2.0 suffered from some oversimplification; but over time, that mistake has been corrected, and not just in places like the file dialogs. New bits of functionality have arrived that are both simple and powerful.

The "Removable Drives and Media Preferences" dialog box in Gnome is a shining example of simplicity that doesn't sacrifice configurability.
The "Removable Drives and Media Preferences" dialog box in Gnome is a shining example of simplicity that doesn't sacrifice configurability.
On my Ubuntu Linux machines (running the current Breezy Badger release, which contains Gnome 2.12), there's a "Removable Drives and Media Preferences" dialog box that lets you control exactly what happens when you insert a blank CD or DVD, plug in your camera, connect a USB input device, and so forth. There are simple check box toggles to turn various functions on and off; it's easy, for instance, to turn off automatic playback of music CDs. But it's also easy to change what program gets launched when such a disc is popped in--just change the command in the text box.

You can be as geeky as you want: If all you know is the name of the program you want to run, provide that. If there are a whole bunch of geeky options you want to pass through, enter those in the box, too. I think this dialog is a perfect example of how things can be kept straightforward enough for newbies, but powerful enough to please the geeks--and I'm seeing more and more of this in each successive Gnome release.

Which desktop is right for you? Only you can provide that answer. I happen to like Gnome, and think it is better suited to a wider audience. I also think that KDE is a fine environment, but I'd never put it in front of my Aunt Susie. That's not because I think she's an idiot, or because I think Gnome is an interface for idiots. It's because Aunt Susie doesn't think about or interact with computers the way that Linus Torvalds does. And despite what Linus Torvalds thinks, that doesn't make her an idiot--and you're no idiot either if you decide that simpler is in fact better. Free Software is all about choice, and in this case, the choice is pretty clear. So give both desktops a whirl, decide what's important to you, and pursue your own computing nirvana. May the New Year find you Free and productive, technologically speaking. I'll see you in 2006!

How did you arrive at your own desktop choice? Have a thought to share on Linux or Free Software? PC World's Free Agent wants to hear from you. Speak Freely!
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