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Seizing brand equity

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Red Hat's Owen Taylor has been explaining why the distro has decided to erase the differences between the look and feel of its desktop offerings from KDE and Gnome.

It should give even the most avid fans of competition between the two camps some pause for thought, and makes a nice counterpoint to Sun's desktop Linux announcements later this week.

Taylor doesn't beat about the bush. Providing two desktops with different brands and behavior is confusing and costs Red Hat an unnecessary amount of money, he writes. In the latest beta of RedHat Linux, the distro has replaced the KDE and Gnome branding with its own in-house look and feel.

Of course, the underlying applications still use different toolkits and style guides - they're every part "two Universes", as Taylor puts it. But he says that unifying the warring camps is a task beyond even Red Hat.

"Red Hat has no intention of forcing cooperation on the two projects (or ability to do so)," he writes.

"We don't think it is in our best interest, or our users' best interest to have two separate unrelated desktop universes within our product."

Red Hat is the only distro to consistently favor the ideologically-correct Gnome over the more mature KDE, and unsurprisingly KDE members have been extremely skeptical about the rationale offered by Taylor (a Gnome developer):

"For them to make changes which will definitely reduce stability and also changes which break compatability with standard KDE source tarballs then claim they want KDE and Gnome to compete on 'Stability' and 'ease of customization' absolutely beggars belief," wrote KDE's Richard Moore on OSNews. "Just how are we supposed to do that when they've introduced huge problems we already know about?"

An even less charitable explanation is that Red Hat wants to erase the brand equity of the individual desktop environments and impose its own. Branding is considered very important - it's why Windows has its awful Start menu, and Mac OS X an even worse piece of UI engineering in the Dock - but both will be with us for a very long time. Red Hat has the potential to try and promote one single standard 'look and feel', as it has both the market share and, as the only Linux company making money, sound finances. But the company has little interest in the desktop right now, and only a hardy few think there will be riches in shrink-wrap consumer distros any time soon.

And the answer to that is in the question. Red Hat has done us all a huge favor by concentrating minds on the needless and divisive battle between the two camps. This has denied Linux the vital network effect. As we've said before, this fails the Martian test, and we don't care which one wins, but one must.

Sun will take up the stick - and use it to muddy the waters even more, this week - when it announces its own Linux desktop initiatives. Sun very loudly opted to buy into Gnome a couple of years ago , at a time when it would have been cheaper to buy TrollTech Inc and release the toolkit into the public domain, and it's been regretting it ever since. This sentiment is widespread at Sun, with senior staff expressing incredulity at the cruftiness of the code, and privately agreeing that a TrollTech acquisition would have made much more sense.

Developers would have one API on which to focus their energies, generating some vital momentum, and Microsoft would now have one, free desktop environment to compete with instead of two - or two and a paint job, with RedHat Null.

Up at Redmond, they must laughing all the way to the Taskbar. ®

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