Home > Real Life, The Internet > Battlefronts, Part 2

Battlefronts, Part 2

Let’s pick up from last time, when we were discussing the way that Vi has crushed Emacs, seen Emacs driven before it, and heard the lamentations of Emacs’ women. But as I also mentioned before, there is another topic of debate, which isn’t quite such a shut-out: KDE and GNOME.

Now, normally I wouldn’t bother with a topic that’s been covered so many times, but in this case, I’m willing to make an exception: not only did I come to side with one faction because of some unusual circumstances, but I’ve got an expert witness whose testimony I found especially interesting.

To start off with, I should explain what GNOME and KDE are. Well, for starters, they’re both acronyms, which make them annoying to type. This annoyance is actually measured on an exponential curve, such that typing GNOME is about three times as annoying as KDE. Reason #1 to use KDE.

But seriously, they’re two types of desktop environments. They are two different systems for managing how your desktop … environs. For example, in Windows, there’s just the one desktop environment, which is what you use when you click the Start menu, or use the taskbar, or put something on your desktop. KDE and GNOME both do this taskbar/start menu trick to varying degrees, but the real difference comes behind the scenes when controlling other things, such as setting your wallpaper or desktop keybindings.

But each environment also has its own set of native utilities that work best (or in some cases, only) when run inside their proper environment. For example, where Windows has Notepad, GNOME has Gedit (pronounced “gee-edit” or “get-it”), and KDE has Kate. As a general rule, if the name of the program starts with a K, it probably is meant to run in KDE. Examples include KNetworkManager, Konsole, Katapult, and Konqueror.

Underlying each environment, however, is a certain design philosophy, which for GNOME is “extreme user-friendliness” and for KDE is “extreme power user-friendliness.” This is not to say that GNOME is unfriendly to power users, nor KDE unfriendly to novices, but each keeps its eye on its own goal. Ironically, GNOME attempts to re-invent the wheel by replacing the Start menu in the lower left corner with three menus in the upper left, on the upper status bar, while KDE keeps the Windows concept of the Start menu and centralizes all the applications in that “K menu” — although doing a better job of organizing its contents. I say that this is ironic because one of the tenets of interface design is the principle of least surprise, which dictates that a user coming from a lifetime of Windows would expect those options to be in the lower left menu. This would be the least astonishing to the user and therefore make KDE slightly more user-friendly in this respect.

At any rate, for whatever reason, GNOME is the default environment for the two Linux distros with a focus on a user-friendliness that I’ve used (Fedora Core and Ubuntu). The Fedora Core experience comes from my days of taking a Linux class that used Fedora Core. Because GNOME was the default, it took a bit of ingenuity for a beginner with our experience to switch to KDE, as well as being slightly outside the rules, as we were all supposed to be running GNOME. This made running KDE not only clever, but slightly cool because we weren’t supposed to do it.

But this actually offered an excellent grounding in the differences between the environments. Because I used KDE on my class computer, and … er … “helped” classmates on their GNOME machines. It was at this point that I started to be soured on the fanatical focus on user-friendliness of GNOME, which solidified my bond to the leather-jacket-wearing Fonz-eqsue KDE.

Some months later, during my second semester of Linux, one of the computers in the class was converted to running this other Linux distribution by the name of Ubuntu, which claimed to be super user-friendly and ran GNOME by default, so I was instantly wary. How good could any distro be that applied the GNOME ideas to the entire operating system? Well, at the time, I found not very well. In the end, I was once again frustrated by GNOME and left with a rather sour view of Ubuntu.

So when I got my laptop for school a few months ago, I’m not sure exactly why I decided to install Ubuntu on it, but it probably had to do with its reputed good record for support and recent popularity among the tech community. But I was determined to avoid GNOME. As it happens, there is an Ubuntu official derivative called (surprise surprise) Kubuntu which comes with KDE and all of its retinue in place of GNOME. Plus it replaces the muddy — I mean “earthy” brown color scheme of Ubuntu with a nice shiny blue.

Up to this point, I had been using openSUSE, a completely separate distribution which I had picked up in my second semester of Linux while I was doing my project on Linux servers, for which openSUSE was much better suited. But openSUSE’s power never really managed to balance out its frustrating errors. It is still in use at my house to run the network’s print server, but if I had to reinstall from scratch, I’d probably use something else.

It was exactly this feeling of dissatisfaction that made me recalcitrant to try openSUSE on my laptop, so Kubuntu it was. But I promised myself that if it got too “kid-gloves,” I would switch to another distro. But it never really has. KDE has made it all come together for me, and turned me into a believer. If Ubuntu was a cult, I’d be drinking the bright-blue Kool-aid.

My father is also approaching my position in this respect, since he spent almost an entire weekend wrestling with an Ubuntu install (running GNOME, natch) before trying again with a copy of Kubuntu, which solved the myriad problems he was running into with GNOME not allowing him to log in and such. Of course, he has to use Windows for his work, so he can’t really make the switch if he so desired, but it’s good to know I’ve made another believer out of him.

Which brings me to my aforementioned expert witness on the KDE versus GNOME debate: Linus Torvalds himself. A few of the best (and harshest quotes):

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.

There is a huge difference between “being easy to use” and “only being easy to use.” “Being easy to use” is important, because it means that there isn’t a very high learning curve. That’s good.

“ONLY being easy to use” is bad, because it means that once the initial learning curve is over, maybe you know the program, but you can’t actually do what you WANT to do. And that’s bad. That’s really bad. It’s actually much worse than being hard to use to begin with, in many ways.

Follow the link for more information, quotes and some half-hearted responses to Torvalds’ criticism from a GNOME project developer.

I really do hate to see the entire work of the GNOME folks be so ripped apart, because there’s been so much work put into GNOME, but I have to agree with old man Linus. GNOME just doesn’t do what I want it to, whereas I’ve yet to fully explore the vast options in KDE, not to mention all of the various packages to extend KDE’s ability.

I’ll easily concede my loyalty to KDE lies in historically poor experiences with GNOME, but I haven’t yet seen or heard a good reason why I should bother to switch to GNOME and stop evangelizing to KDE.

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Categories: Real Life, The Internet
  1. Bob
    November 9, 2007 at 10:15 am

    Thanks for this clear explanation (assuming you didn’t just make it all up). I’m on the verge of installing Ubuntu on my laptop — in fact, I’d gotten as far as downloading the ISO file, but hadn’t done any more yet. Based on what you say here, I’m thinking I might want to change course and check out Kubuntu instead.

    After all, there’s a certain fruit-flavored OS I have avoided for years, partly just to be contrary, but partly because I have always detected a bit of the “users are idiots” philosophy in their approach. I *want* to be able to shoot myself in the foot.

    I look forward to your essay on dogs versus cats…

  1. November 12, 2007 at 12:51 pm

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