Desktop difference

A perennial e-mail in my inbox asks: "Should I use KDE or Gnome?" While tedious, it's actually natural for a user arriving from the land of commercial operating systems, where you don't have this sort of choice. Maybe not stupid, but perhaps a little silly.

Car/computer analogies always hold up well, so let's try one here: if you wrote in asking whether I think you should drive a Mini Cooper or a Hummer, my best bet would be to offer no opinion. I know nothing of your preferences or your needs. Either vehicle will get you where you want to go. The difference will be in the experience of getting there. It's the same deal with KDE and Gnome.

The creator speaks

Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux kernel, recently raised a stir on a public mailing list with some inflammatory comments about the Gnome desktop. He wrote, in part: "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. Please, just tell people to use KDE."

This is a classic straw-man argument. Gnome developers don't believe that "users are idiots, and are confused by functionality." But it sure makes them sound misguided when you frame things that way, doesn't it?

His real complaint about the Gnome desktop is an old one that first emerged when Gnome 2.0 was released. The Gnome 1.x series was a desktop built by geeks, for geeks. But for Gnome 2.0, the Gnome Human Interface Guidelines were adopted, and with them a new approach that basically decreed "simpler is better". Gnome became a desktop for everybody - at least, that was the intention. Plenty of geeks who like hundreds of settings to tweak felt abandoned and betrayed. So they jumped ship, many of them to KDE.

In Gnome's first few post-2.0 iterations, it's true that several useful features disappeared due to some overzealous simplification. But over time, all things come into balance, and so has it been with Gnome. In today's Gnome you find very sensible default settings wherever you turn. Where there are user-configurable preferences, they are simple and straightforward, both in their labelling and in their presentation.

Total control

KDE, however, looks and feels like it never stopped being aimed squarely at geeks. For example, there's an item in the labyrinthine KDE Control Centre that lets the user control how many seconds it takes before an auto-hiding panel disappears from the screen after the mouse pointer leaves the panel. I'm sure plenty of people out there love that setting and have invested time in discovering that they like a three-second delay far more than a two- or four-second delay: I used to be like them.

But over time I decided that I preferred to do real work (mostly creative work) with my PC, rather than reconfigure it all the time. I'm not saying that I evolved: I'm making no value judgments here at all. I am, rather, identifying two kinds of users: those in the "keep it simple, stupid" camp, and those who want to play with every last toggle switch imaginable. Gnome is built for the former; KDE for the latter.

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