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Sun puts dollars and suits behind GNOME

Come into my Office Suite, said the spider to the fly

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Exclusive Sun sources tell us that it will unveil its "GNOME Foundation" initiative at the San Jose LinuxWorld expo this week.

From what we gather, this will be a formal organisation, initially co-sponsored by Sun, with the intention of broadening the appeal of desktop environment to proprietary Unixes. But that's not all. The Foundation will make a declaration to base GNOME office work on Sun's recently open-sourced StarOffice acquisition, openoffice.org.

We tapped GNOME project leader and Helix Code co-founder Miguel de Icaza, for more details, but he couldn't volunteer more on the specifics beyond the statement: "We are always talking to vendors to adopt free software technology."

I'm the laughing GNOME

We've also heard - but this is unconfirmed - that Sun will put the next major overhaul of the GNOME desktop - version 2.0 - into future versions of its Solaris OS, once the former is ready to ship. This ambitious overhaul of GNOME was announced at the last West Coast LinuxWorld a year ago, and like the forthcoming KDE2 desktop, features a host of goodies including a compound object model, some very slick font handling and new system management and configuration tools. In other words, it's a much richer development environment to the one Linux developers face today.

We'll be able to judge how serious Sun really is about what some of its folk have described as: "GNOME Everywhere", when the size of its backing is announced (right now, we don't know), and by how hard it pushes the platform to its traditional developers.

For almost all of these use Motif/CDE right now - that's the messy compromise that the big Unix vendors finally agreed, after years of wrangling, almost a decade ago.

Fully compliant CDE Unix desktops didn't actually start to ship on the big Unixes until after Microsoft had shipped Windows 95, giving you some idea of how slow progress was on reaching any kind of agreement back then. And Sun hasn't forgotten how much it gave up it in the process - ceding its NeWS windowing system (which used Postscript) for X.11, and its OpenLook window manager for Motif. The result was that five years on from the height of the UI wars, HP's workstations looked very much like they did before, while Sun's now looked just like HP's.

So the Foundation looks like its main job will be persuading these commercial application vendors off Motif and onto GNOME. That's something they've been reluctant to do right now, arguing that Motif may well be big, bulky and buggy, but it's a fixed target, nevertheless.

And you can catch me

De Icaza didn't see any legal or ideological obstacles to prevent these big developers joining the GNOME bandwagon, telling us: "As libraries are licensed under the terms of the GNU GPL, which means that it is perfectly legal to write applications that use the GNOME foundation." Developers can link to GPL code through well defined APIs or other IPC mechanisms without having to give away their own source code.

So what do the GNOME folk get out of this? In marketing terms it's a coup, but in hard hacker terms probably very little. StarOffice is kind of open source now anyway, so there's little first mover advantage. And it's accumulated years of development time and functionality - which makes pulling out useful bits of code for GNOME office all the more difficult.

But then Sun hasn't been neglecting It either, and new features such as PDA integration could be useful to an open source office suite. So despite this week's announcements, we don't suspect that a future Gnome office will emerge looking anything like StarOffice does now. And given the reputation StarOffice has today, there'll plenty of StarOffice users who hope the same... ®

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