Both GNOME and KDE are also moving towards various means of swapping icon sets, to make the desktop more task-oriented and less application-oriented. Aaron Seigo, the KDE developer, even envisions icon sets that change automatically depending on user's locations.
Whether users want all these tools, or will use them, may be questionable. However, more than anything else, such experiments show just how far the free desktop has come from the days when it was trying to catch up with Windows and OS X.
All these issues raise a question unique to the free desktop: Are these experiments for the benefit of the users, or the developers?
To those who do proprietary development, this question would hardly need to be asked. Officially, at least, proprietary development is supposed to be done for the users -- although it is easy to be cynical about this claim.
However, the question arises naturally in free software because, to attract and retain developers, a project needs to offer the chance to do new and interesting coding. Given this circumstance, desktops like GNOME or KDE cannot afford to stand still.
The problem is that, today, free desktops can add little to basic functionality. Any experiments have to be tentative, and risk leaving users behind, or making them actively hostile -- especially since a growing body of new users react to free software companies exactly as they once did to commercial companies.
And, since these new users are not coders, telling them to get involved in the development process (the traditional answer to those who complain about the state of free software projects) is not a satisfactory answer.
The result is that, somewhere in the middle of all these technical concerns, free desktops and distributions have the social problem of trying to find the right balance between pleasing developers and users. Some observers already believe that the reception of KDE 4.0 was partly the result of too little attention to users, and worry that the same imbalance may be behind GNOME 3.0
Behind these issues are some larger ones about the general direction that the free desktop should take. In both GNOME and KDE, the mainstream assumption seems to be that the desktop will continue to grow, adding feature to feature until, at some point, a rewriting or a general cleaning of the code becomes necessary.
Yet that direction is being challenged. For some, the current state of the free desktop is advanced enough that little is needed. Presumably, incremental changes will happen, but not major ones -- which is presumably one reason why some distributions and users continue to prefer the KDE 3 series of releases over KDE 4. A similar reaction may occur when GNOME 3.0 is released.
Moreover, to judge by the popularity of Ubuntu variants that use desktops such as Xfce or LXDE, for some the free desktop as defined by GNOME or KDE is already too bloated. For such users, the issue is not features, but reducing the memory overhead as far as possible.
None of these alternatives is likely to overwhelm the others -- not even mainstream GNOME and KDE. But, like the other issues, if you value choice (and who doesn't?), these possible directions make this an interesting time to be a user of a free desktop.
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