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X Windows creator calls for standard Linux GUI

Mainstream success demands it, warns Gettys

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Compaq senior consulting engineer and co-creator of X Windows Jim Gettys used his keynote at the Linux Expo show yesterday to rally the open source OS' enthusiasts round the idea of a standard graphical user interface. Gettys was voicing a concern a number of Linux advocates have raised: that without a consistent, unified user interface, the OS is going to face a much tougher challenge breaking into the mainstream. "We need agreements that everybody does the same thing," he said. "We don't want to have n different programs, n different interfaces, to make a general purpose program, do we?" As co-developer of X Windows, Gettys knows all about standard specifications, of course. In that respect, he sounds a little like Unix co-creator Ken Thompson, who lambasted the open source movement and its development of Linux for its highly un-disciplined approach. He forgot, of course, that that's precisely what makes Linux and open source attractive to so many programmers, and arguably Gettys seems to be making the same mistake. Still, he has a point -- wider acceptance of Linux will depend on allowing both developers to have a clear idea about what the user experience will be, and for users to know the moving from one machine to another isn't going to require them to learn a new GUI. "If you can't make it look like another guy's stuff, you're broken," said Gettys. Fortunately most Linux GUIs are based on Gettys' own X Windows, so there's already a little consistency there, but with so many windows and file managers, more could certainly be done to standardise on a specific GUI or set of GUI features. In fact, with Red Hat's Linux distribution adopting Gnome as its GUI of choice, the standardisation Gettys wants may happen by default. Corel's upcoming consumer-oriented Linux distribution is also said to be based on Gnome. The other option is KDE, but that appears to be losing ground to Gnome (though it still has many advocates). And Gettys, unlike Thompson, at least appeared to sympathise with the Linux community. "Specifications are a pain," he said, "but they are absolutely necessary. They allow bright people to understand how a system works without wading through all the code." He also asked users to look beyond the windows, icons and mouse approach to GUIs. "We are seeing a rapidly growing use of non-desktop devices," he said, indicating the wealth of new form factors, including smartphones, Palm machines and voice-input systems. Developers "should think out of the box, off the desktop, think unconventionally", he said. ®

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