All entries for Tuesday 05 February 2008

February 05, 2008

openSUSE & desktop environment choice.

One of the strengths of openSUSE is that configuration tools written using the YaST platform do not have to be re-written to fit within a different desktop environment. For example here is the same printer configuration dialogue being drawn using the Qt/GTK and ncurses user interface toolkits.

If this configuration tool had been written as a KDE application it would appear out of place on GNOME, and if it were written as a GNOME application it would appear out of place in KDE.

The user interface for the One Click Install handler was implemented using YaST, which meant that GNOME users could benefit from it without having to depend on a KDE application KDE , GNOME . In other distributions new features may be focused on one particular desktop, and users of another desktop, may be left to wait until someone ports the features.

It also helps to allow the desktop teams to focus on working on KDE or GNOME rather than only writing and fixing configuration tools.

While this is a great strength, it is perhaps simultaneously a great weakness. Most other distributions which are targetted at end users have a default desktop environment, for example:

  • Ubuntu: GNOME
  • Debian: GNOME
  • Red Hat: GNOME
  • Mandriva: KDE
  • Freespire: KDE

etc.. (no need to list them all)

This is all very sensible, quite apart from allowing them to focus their development resource, it also allows them to market the distribution as a complete product. Take the main product description page for ubuntu for example , they are able to give a flavour of what the product looks and feels like because they recognise that the desktop environment is part of the product, perhaps the most important part. It also means users can install from an ubuntu install cd without having to understand what a desktop environment is. It also allows them to arrange deals to install the product on OEM machines.

Historically SUSE Linux was much the same as these others, the default desktop environment was KDE, there were personal and professional boxed sets of the SUSE Linux operating system. There was also an enterprise version SLD . SUSE Linux built up a significant userbase, primarily of KDE users. Even now, as of last count there are 70% KDE users vs 20% GNOME . These historical users being the most experienced, are perhaps the most likely to get involved with openSUSE development.

Since the Novell purchase of SUSE political pressures, presumably partly from ex-ximian people, led to the switch of the enterprise desktop product to GNOME as the default desktop environment. The thinking, apparently, was that SUSE’s niche as a great KDE based OS was insufficient and there was a better chance competing against Red Hat directly by copying exactly what Red Hat were doing.

After this the openSUSE default desktop was also changed, but not to GNOME, instead to have no default at all. Instead, users are now presented with a confusing step during installation , during which they have to choose which desktop environment they wish to use (Or an equally confusing download page if using 1cd install) . This is an impossible choice to make for someone who does not know what a desktop environment is, and the politically correct descriptive text does nothing to help. (Efforts have been made to improve the descriptions of the desktop environments shown during installation, and to show previews of each desktop, but these do not really solve any problems, only slightly alleviates them.)

This has the following implications:

  • The potential userbase is limited to those few who know what a “desktop environment” is.

Others won’t even get over the installation hurdle.

  • Reviewers assume the de-facto default desktop environment is GNOME.

As it is the default for the enterprise version, and also listed first. Consequently the poor quality GNOME desktop leads to bad reviews.

  • openSUSE can’t be marketed as a product, just a collection of packages and choices.
  • openSUSE can’t be installed on OEM systems without someone picking a desktop or forcing choice on users at first boot.
  • openSUSE is relegated from being a product to simply a playground for testing packages.

Quotes from the GNOME team such as “If you want a stable system, there’s SLED”, in addition to frequently broken GNOME packages in openSUSE releases would seem to support this view. SLED is the only remaining desktop product.

  • openSUSE quality decreases, can only be used by those who can fix the problems themselves.
  • Novell have more to develop and support as openSUSE and SLE diverge.

Many desktop features were added first to SLED10, and then moved to openSUSE. Development ends up having to be done twice, once on the enterprise products, and then on openSUSE. The more the codebases diverge the more work there is to support security & bugfix updates on both openSUSE and SLE products.

  • Only people who are interested in developing a distribution aimed at a geek niche will contribute to openSUSE.

None of which is good for the future of SUSE.

In my not-so humble opinion this situation is untenable, yet I can’t forsee any change. The de-facto SUSE Linux / openSUSE desktop has always been KDE by the user and developer base. Choosing GNOME would mean a loss of users/contributors as staunch KDE advocates move on. It possibly also means attracting few users as other distributors such as Red Hat/Fedora and Debian or Ubuntu already do much better jobs of shipping a GNOME desktop. Going back to KDE is unlikely to happen due to internal Novell politics & pressure from ex-ximian people. So most likely the situation will stay as it is now, with use slowly declining due to the problems above.

While some people have been complaining in recent weeks about kubuntu being a second class citizen to ubuntu, I see this as one of its greatest strengths. The alternative is like with openSUSE, the whole distribution ends up becoming the “second citizen”.

February 2008

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