The obvious way to popularize Linux is to give it a point-and-click desktop akin to that of the Macintosh and Windows. Such a move, however, was of little interest to the type of person who developed Linux. Most programmers like typing on a command line because it lets them control the machine more precisely than they can by clicking on a mouse.
Torvalds himself says he doesn’t care much about “nice graphical interfaces.” Indeed, at first he wasn’t sure that Linux would function well with one. But Torvalds ultimately welcomed Miguel de Icaza’s announcement in August 1997 of the GNOME project: an attempt to put together a graphical user interface. “I joke a lot about Linux taking over the world and how Microsoft should be afraid,” says Torvalds, who has recently conducted “World Domination 101” seminars at Linux conventions. “But with something that makes it easy for the home user-maybe it just might happen.”
Proponents of GNOME faced several obstacles. First, a Linux desktop project already existed. Based in Germany and called the K Desktop Environment (KDE), it was under heavy attack within the open-source community. In a perfect example of the arcane squabbling endemic to passionately idealistic enterprises, the open-source community battled over whether the KDE desktop was fatally tainted because it included code from a Norwegian company, Troll Technology, that was not completely nonproprietary. The short answer is: probably. Which was one reason de Icaza, and then much of the Linux community, shifted attention to GNOME.
Within a year of the project’s inception, more than 150 people were developing GNOME, about 20 of them full-time. Red Hat hired seven full-time programmers to work on it. This crew is, of course, infinitesimal compared to the battalions of programmers laboring to produce each new version of Windows. On the other hand, “we don’t have to go through the contortions they do,” says Todd Graham Lewis, keeper of the frequently-asked-question file for GNOME. “One hour of work on Windows 98 means 15 minutes of working on functionality, and 45 minutes of checking on DOS compatibility, Windows 3.1 compatibility, and Windows 95 compatibility. One hour of work on GNOME is one hour of functionality.” Partly for this reason, the project has moved quickly; version 1.0 may be available at www.gnome.org as early as the beginning of 1999.
Describing the result isn’t easy, because the project is creating a desktop that users can configure themselves-in other words, one with no standard appearance. “Windows has a set of colors and fonts you can change,” says Carsten Haitzler, a GNOME programmer at Red Hat. “But that’s all you can do. We want you to be able to customize everything from the ground up.”
Users who don’t want to tinker with the desktop can choose among scores of pre-fab “themes”-although most of the current themes, which have been produced by young male programmers, resemble the covers of science-fiction novels. “People say my desktop looks like something out of Babylon 5,” Haitzler says proudly.