Miguel de Icaza spends his days as a computer-network administrator at the Institute of Nuclear Sciences at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, in Mexico City. Watching over the network, he says, “gives me a lot of spare time”-time he spends answering e-mail and working on “fun little projects.” His current spare-time computer activity, he thinks, is “really great.” De Icaza is coordinating the GNOME project, a volunteer effort to develop a computer desktop-a mouse-and-windows interface-that will outdo the various incarnations of Windows that form the foundation of the Microsoft empire.
The GNOME desktop, its programmers say, will be faster, more powerful and less likely to crash than anything from Redmond, Wash. “It’s a radical step forward in computer design,” says Larry McVoy, a former Sun Microsystems programmer who now runs a networking startup in San Francisco called BitMover, “the coolest, whizziest thing out there.” And GNOME will be free: downloadable from the Internet without charge.
The notion of a small band of unpaid part-timers challenging one of the world’s most dominant corporations may seem absurd, but the GNOME project intends to do exactly that. “They have decided to take the desktop back from Microsoft,” says Eric S. Raymond, a free-software evangelist who is editor of The New Hacker’s Dictionary. In his view, there is a good chance that the project could succeed. “It’s not at all impossible,” Raymond says, “that GNOME could push the software world into a dramatically different-and better-place.”
Why would GNOME succeed where bigger, richer outfits-Apple, most prominently-failed? Two reasons, according to its backers. First, GNOME is not starting alone. It is designed to work with an operating system called Linux (“LINN-uks”). Renowned for its speed, reliability and efficiency, Linux runs on as many as 10 million computer systems around the world, ranging from small, geek-oriented networks at Internet-service providers and university computer labs to huge outfits like Wells Fargo and the U.S. Postal Service. With a user base growing at an estimated rate of 40 percent per year, Linux is the sole non-Microsoft operating system that is expanding its market share (see sidebar “Looking For Linux?”).
Although more than 20 small companies now sell computers preloaded with Linux, the system is rarely found in homes because its reputation for technical excellence is matched by its reputation for user-unfriendliness. Indeed, one standard installation guide begins by admitting that Linux is “one of the most complex and utterly intimidating systems ever written,” because users must type runic commands like “awk,” “grep” and “mount -t iso9660/dev/cdrom/mnt.” By providing a simple, intuitive point-and-click interface, “GNOME will make it possible for my wife, my mother and my grandfather to use Linux,” says Michael Fulbright, a project member at Red Hat Advanced Development Laboratories, a corporate-sponsored Linux think tank in Research Triangle Park, N.C. “Finally, nongeeks will get to use something that geeks take for granted: software that works right.” And once people see what it’s like to use good software, Linux partisans argue, they will never go back to Windows.
The second, larger reason that GNOME could succeed is that, like Linux, it is a product of what is known as the “free-software” or “open-source” movement. Not only can GNOME be obtained free of charge, but its source code-the underlying instructions that most software firms regard as their crown jewels-will be available for anyone to copy and modify. By liberating the source code from the control of a single company, projects like GNOME can harness the contributions of thousands of programmers. Because not even giant Microsoft can surpass the united talent of the whole world, free-software partisans argue, open-source software will always outstrip the competition. “Produce something better and people will eventually notice,” says Bruce Perens, a free-software programmer who works at Pixar Animation Studios in Richmond, Calif. “GNOME will be one ticket to the future.”
In Mexico City, de Icaza describes the project in less grandiose terms. “GNOME will be fun,” he says. “A really good hack.”
Looking for Linux?
Products Company Contact Comments Price/Support VA Research 1-888-LINUX4U
www.varesearch.com The most consumer-friendly of the many Linux PC vendors. Pentium systems preloaded with Linux and Linux-based applications. Start at $1400. Red Hat Software 1-888-REDHAT1
www.redhat.com The market leader in commercially sold Linux distributions. In Linux terms, easy to install. Major GNOME backer. $49.95 (all prices for basic one-person PC Linux); 90 days of e-mail/fax support. Caldera Systems 1-888-GOLINUX
www.caldera.com Second in commercial Linux market. Includes KDE, rival desktop to GNOME. $59; 30 days of phone/e-mail support. S.u.S.E 1-888-UR-LINUX
www.suse.com German Linux leader, with U.S. offices in Silicon Valley. $49.95 ($79.95 for package with KDE and office suite); 60 days of free phone/e-mail support. Debian www.debian.org Branch of Software in the Public Interest, a nonprofit corporation that also supports GNOME. Free download. No direct support, though Linux e-mail lists are famously helpful. Information Linux Online www.linux.org Semi-official site promoting Linux-often swamped. Linux Center www.linux-center.org/en/ A Yahoo-like index to Linux based in France. The GNOME project www.gnome.org Comprehensive site for users and software developers. The K Desktop Environment www.kde.org Site devoted to GNOME’s rival system. Free Software Foundation www.fsf.org Headquarters of Richard Stallman’s GNU project.