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”.

- 12 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. Isnardo

    I came from Ubuntu and Linux Mint. Two weeks ago I decided to give OpenSUSE Gnome Edition a try and I’m falling in love for this distro.

    When I thought I have found a new home, I read a post like yours… What should I do now? Come back to Ubuntu/Linux Mint, where the Gnome lovers are well accepted?

    I prefer to think that OpenSUSE’s decision of supporting KDE/Gnome environments is putting in practice the Linux ideal of freedom of choice.

    Instead of promoting the closing of Gnome Team at OpenSUSE, I think the more interesting position is thinking about how the Gnome Edition can be developed as top quality as the KDE Edition…

    05 Feb 2008, 23:01

  2. kjk

    openSUSE should provide both GNOME and KDE (+others) on equal rights. Some kind of split between “kde-suse” or “gnome-suse” is the worst that can happen.

    05 Feb 2008, 23:01

  3. RS

    This is a really interesting post.

    I do agree that it’s silly that the openSUSE DVD lacks a default choice when it comes to what desktop environment to choose. You’re absolutely right that the politically correct definitions are not helpful if you don’t know what DE you want (and if you do, the descriptions are unnecessary).

    It is novel to see the variation of opinion when it comes to DE focus in distributions. In the current discussions about Kubuntu there have been some in the community who criticise KDE users, saying they should just find a distro that emphasizes KDE instead of criticizing Canonical. Here we have a distro that tries to be DE-agnostic but that can be seen as problematic as well.

    Do you think the solution could be to brand the DEs separately as separate distros?
    openSUSE: KDE & openSUSE: Gnome? Or some other set of names?

    Or are you suggesting the removal/demotion of Gnome and its related contributors in the SUSE community?

    It’s interesting that despite the development pace of the KDE project, there seems to be so much standardization around Gnome. It’s unfortunate that KDE seems to be losing representation, especially now that no major business Linux desktop ships KDE by default. Perhaps KDE 4.1 or 4.2 will put an end to the under-representation of KDE. Fedora has already made strides to make KDE a more prominent choice for users.

    Ximian politics at Novell or not, we’re going to see just how effective and even-handed the openSUSE Governing Board is in the next year or two when it comes to addressing the issues facing openSUSE and not just being a testing ground for SLED/S…

    06 Feb 2008, 04:40

  4. I should clarify that the quality of the GNOME desktop in openSUSE has certainly improved over the last few releases. As the GNOME team at Novell has become more involved, and community members are joining the effort. Particularly as some of the features like SLAB were beta-tested in the enterprise desktop before openSUSE got them. So there is no need to rush to another distribution for fear of GNOME being dropped or unmaintained at any point.

    However, although the GNOME edition being sub-par leads to poor reviews when people assume GNOME is the prefered desktop, the problem still exists even if both desktops were of equal quality. The product has no identity.

    There is a difference between freedom of choice and forced choice.

    [x] KDE
    [ ] GNOME
    [ other ]

    Is freedom of choice.

    [ ] KDE
    [ ] GNOME
    [ other ]

    is forced choice. Note that the former requires /no more/ mouse clicks in order to select GNOME, it simply provides a path of least resistance for those who are unable to make the choice.

    06 Feb 2008, 09:33

  5. Isnardo

    Well… If you are talking about KDE being selected (or suggested) as the default DE for OpenSUSE it’s OK for me. I think this could really help the new users and evaluators. My only fear is that assuming the KDE as the official DE for OpenSUSE could put Gnome in a very secondary position as it was in the past.

    Sincerely, I think this could happen already in the OpenSUSE 11. I’ve read a lot of news about KDE4 in OpenSUSE 11, but nothing about the new aspects to be implemented in Gnome Edition ;(

    Despite of that, I will mantain my OpenSUSE Gnome installation and I’ll keep waiting for the OpenSUSE 11! :)

    06 Feb 2008, 12:44

  6. JC

    This is an interesting post, as it touches on a subject several of my fellow developers were discussing a few months back.

    We’re primarily a Unix based shop (a very, very large one) and we have a very large Novell contract with a lot of SLES. Developers have primarily used SuSE on their desktops for the longest while, but there’s been a migration towards Kubuntu because of the perceived notion that SuSE doesn’t support KDE as well as they could/should. I don’t know of many developers (at least corporate developers) who like Gnome… all of the ‘no options are good options’ seems to rankle the power users.

    Please don’t de-emphasize KDE support.. and go back to making it the default choice if possible.

    06 Feb 2008, 13:44

  7. Nathan

    You have excellent points here. This is a “problem” that has not been solved by any distribution. openSUSE (because it currently is desktop agnostic) could actually be in a good position to solve the problem of how to promote choice without promoting confusion.

    In order to solve this choice problem, though, I think the differences between KDE and GNOME need to be identified. They can include things such as features, goals, purposes, desired audiences, etc. These differences do not need to be used to say which desktop is better overall.

    We do not have as much trouble describing the differences between distributions (although these descriptions do tend to be “we’re better than the other distro is”). However, companies are able to successfully “promote” different distros within their organization (Novell: SLED/openSUSE, Redhat: RHEL/Fedora, etc.).

    I wonder if we could promote the different desktops in a manner similar to a car company promoting different kinds of cars. The car company does not say that one car is better than the others overall, but they might say that one car is better for you than the others are.

    06 Feb 2008, 14:10

  8. Christopher

    That’s kind of a defeatist attitude. I’ve been using Gnome on openSUSE for some time now and haven’t had any issues with implementation. Most new users will take whatever default installation CD they see first and run with it. Yes, choosing a DE is confusing, but I’m willing to bet that they will just pick whatever is presented to them at first.

    In my experiences with implementing openSUSE and SLED on user’s desktops is that they generally prefer Gnome because they feel that it looks more like Windows XP. I think the choice to support both DEs is a wonderful idea and I hope that they don’t de-emphasize EITHER DE. Both environments are great and users should be given a choice.

    The SUSE projects aren’t going to fall apart all because they don’t have a default DE that they develop for.

    06 Feb 2008, 14:41

  9. Grósz Dániel

    What about a more descriptive help text that describes the main characteristics of KDE and GNOME?

    07 Feb 2008, 00:06

  10. Grósz Dániel

    Another suggestion: a new Linux user cannot decide between KDE and GNOME without trying both. If you make one of them default, you make new users, who don’t know what a DE is, not try the other – even if it would be better for them. So you could make another option: ‘Install both’ and at the first login, display a message telling the user where can they change the DE.

    08 Feb 2008, 20:06

  11. Best Before 2000

    I think they should ditch gnome, enough distros already use it. Solely focus on KDE, and do it well.

    28 Mar 2008, 03:41

  12. Josefine Wiesend

    You are so right!
    It’d be better to put KDE as first item on the list and select it by default.
    If I recommend somebody to install OpenSUSE I always have to say «But make sure you select KDE!» ... this sucks.

    04 Apr 2008, 00:14

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