Also see: KDE and GNOME: Seven Irritations in Each (2010)
One of the hardest things for users of other platform to understand is that GNU/Linux does not have a single graphical display. Instead, there are dozens, ranging from basic window managers that control the look and positioning of windows in the X Window system, to complete desktop environments with a wide variety of utilities and specially designed applications.
However, for most users, the choice comes down to either GNOME or KDE, the two most polished and popular choices.
Which is right for you? In this two-part article, we'll make a close comparison of the two desktops, trying to get away from the holy wars that often obscured this topic. The goal is to discuss the differences as dispassionately as possible.
Here in Part 1, we'll discuss where the KDE and GNOME desktops come from. We'll also discuss the basic features that distinguish them from desktops on other platforms and their customization options.
In Part 2, we'll discuss the utilities, administration tools and desktop-specific applications of each.
In the mid-1990s, desktop options for GNUI/Linux and other UNIX-like systems were limited by lack of functionality, or by philosophical freedom or both.
On the one hand, users could choose window managers like FVWM that had relatively little functionality compared to the Windows or MacOS desktops of the time. On the other hand, they could choose the proprietary CDE, a desktop built using the Motif toolkit, and developed by The Open Group, a joint effort of Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, IBM and Novell.
In response to this situation, Mattias Ettrich, then a student at the Eberhard Karls University in Germany, began work on the K Desktop Environment (KDE) in 1996. The project had two goals: a unified look to applications, and ease of use.
KDE quickly attracted developers, but immediately ran into controversy because of its decision to use Trolltech's proprietary Qt toolkit. In response, in 1997, the GNU Project began two subprojects to develop a free software desktop.
The Harmony project, intended to provide a free version of Qt, never did very much, but the GNU Network Object Model Environment (GNOME) became the major rival to KDE, with its applications licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL) and its libraries under the Lesser GPL, so that they could be linked to proprietary applications.
The difference in licenses between the two desktops soon ignited a fierce rivalry between their supporters, complicated by the fact that in the early years KDE was easier to use and included more utilities, making it more popular than GNOME. Trolltech responded to criticisms by releasing Qt under the Q Public License (QPL) in 1998, but this license was not accepted by the Free Software Foundation as a free license, and the controversy continued until 2000, when Qt was released under a dual QPL/GPL license.
Since then, the rivalry between KDE and GNOME has lost much of passion. However, you can still sometimes hear developers argue over which has the superior object model or some other technical aspect that is mostly invisible to the average user.
Occasionally, too, the rivalry flares up for other reasons, as when Linus Torvalds recently criticized GNOME's development policies in public. However, those most involved with the two desktops have generally learned to co-exist, working to assure interoperability through cooperation and the development of common standards via freedesktop.org.