Is Desktop Linux Becoming Fractured as Open Source Matures?

Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

February 6, 2012

3 Min Read
Is Desktop Linux Becoming Fractured as Open Source Matures?

Until quite recently, the Linux world had, for the most part, only two major desktop environments: GNOME 2 and KDE. Fast forward to the present, however, and there’s an immense litany of different choices, all vying to become the new face of your open source operating system. To me, this shift signals a new paradigm in the world of free software — a turn that could have major consequences throughout the channel. Here’s why.

First, let me clarify what I mean about the choice of desktop environments available until a few years ago. By no means were GNOME 2 and KDE the only options, or the only serious ones; there have long been a huge range of interfaces for Linux beyond GNOME and KDE, many of them very stable and usable.

But until recent years virtually all mainstream distributions shipped with GNOME or KDE by default. Unless you were a power user interested in trying out obscure alternatives, GNOME or KDE was what you got when you decided to install Linux.

Now, however, the field has undeniably changed. KDE has lost the prominence it once held, and GNOME 2 has been deprecated in favor of GNOME Shell. What’s more, a variety of new projects have sprung up, many of them endorsed by major Linux distributions, for creating entirely novel desktop environments. The most prominent examples include Ubuntu’s Unity, Linux Mint’s Cinnamon and MATE, an effort to revive GNOME 2.

Compartmentalizing Open Source?

The open source ecosystem has never been short on different choices, and in that sense the rapid expansion in the number of desktop environments offered to users is unsurprising. Just as there always will be lots of Linux distributions to choose from, so always will there be plenty of desktop environments.

But given the extreme diversity of competing Linux interfaces that have popped up in only a couple of years’ time, and the complete failure of the community so far to coalesce around one or two leading ones, this may represent something more significant than the natural tendency of open source developers to fork projects. It’s a bit early to say definitively, but I wonder if we’re trending toward the fracturing of the world of desktop Linux itself into different poles that will never be as compatible as they once were.

Traditionally, one could run whichever Linux distribution one wanted and still be able to use all of the open source software out there. Most programs were installable on any Linux distribution, and KDE applications could run in GNOME, and vice versa, easily enough.

But with different distributions now clinging to their own individual desktop environments, which in some cases are being developed in-house rather than upstream, cross-distribution compatibility no longer may be such a sure thing. With Unity, GNOME Shell, Cinnamon and MATE diverging in such different directions, there may come a day when an application designed to run in one of those environments won’t work in any of the others.

Such compartmentalization of desktop Linux seems yet more likely given Ubuntu’s plans to adopt the Wayland server and the HUD interface. Don’t expect other distributions or desktop environments to rush to ensure compatibility with those changes. Nor is Canonical likely to make it any easier to install Unity on other distributions, another restriction on cross-distribution compatibility.

Would the open source channel fall apart if desktop Linux distributions grow more distant from one another, in technical as well as political terms? Certainly not, since there’s a lot more to open source than the Linux desktop. But a shift like this could be somewhat of a shock for users accustomed to the interchangeability that traditionally has been almost a given in the open source world.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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