Feeds

How Microsoft shattered Gnome's unity with Windows 95

Who needs prior art when you've got lawyers?

Security and trust: The backbone of doing business over the internet

Forking back to the future of 2002

There isn't even prior art for most of the distinctive features of Windows 95. RISC OS already had its Icon Bar, but that doesn't have an app launcher or a way to switch windows. NeXTStep had its Dock, but that doesn't have menus or a status icon. Neither did window-switching. Windows 95 might have been inspired by these – but it implemented them rather differently.

The RISC OS 3.7 desktop from the late 1990s (Credit: Guidebook Gallery)

The problem is that GNOME and KDE and so on didn't. Their versions are precise replicas of Windows 95.

The Linux community seemed unconcerned by Microsoft's patent claim, but what happened next is significant.

Novell, owners of primary KDE backers SUSE, signed a patent-sharing deal with Microsoft. Xandros, at that time a significant Linux vendor on the back of Asus' EEE, had already signed in 2006. Red Hat (still a primary sponsor of GNOME development) and Ubuntu (the leading desktop GNOME distributor) wouldn't sign.

In 2008, GNOME was labelled as "decadent" and a radically different Version 3 was announced. Ubuntu was initially involved, but when its proposals weren't adopted, the company went its own way and developed the Mac-OS-X-like Unity desktop.

In 2011, the two leading GNOME distributors both switched to new desktops. The similarities are conspicuous. Both have removed anything resembling a Start menu or taskbar, replacing some of this functionality with NeXT/Apple-like icon docks down the left hand screen edge, plus full-screen, search-driven app browsers. Both have rearranged window-title-bar buttons and Ubuntu has even banished in-window menu bars. Both have been wildly controversial and are widely disliked.

The same year, SUSE declared that KDE would once again be its default desktop.

Since then, GNOME has forked repeatedly.

The biggest of the Ubuntu remixes, Linux Mint, is carving out a new niche for itself, offering more "traditional" – meaning Windows-like – GNOME-based desktops. First came its own Cinnamon desktop, built upon GNOME 3 but with a taskbar-and-launch-menu shell. Mint is also the only mainstream distro to offer MATE, a fork of the GNOME 2 codebase.

MATE is the only one of these desktops to run happily with 2D graphics – GNOME 3, Unity and Cinnamon all require 3D compositing, rendered either in hardware or (more slowly) in software. GNOME 3 used to offer a non-composited 2D desktop called "Fallback Mode", which looked and worked much like GNOME 2, but was based on Gtk3 and much less customisable. However, GNOME 3.8 has now dropped this feature, resulting in Fallback Mode quickly being forked to create the Consort Desktop Environment.

In its place, the GNOME project has announced Classic Mode, part of the GNOME 3.8 update. This is based on the 3D-composited Shell but with extensions to provide a taskbar and an app menu – in other words, exactly what Mint has done with Cinnamon, but developed separately.

When the first Long Term Support version of Ubuntu was released, there was a single desktop used by every major Linux distribution. As Microsoft rattled its sabre over the following two years, Novell, Linspire and Xandros – all KDE-centric vendors – signed their patent deals with Microsoft.

What the Gnome 3.8 desktop normally looks like - showing some apps in this case. Click to enlarge (Credit: GNOME Project, used under licence)

Six years after Microsoft's threats, there are six different GNOME desktops: GNOME Shell, Unity, Cinnamon, MATE, Consort and now Classic Mode. As a result, developer effort is spread pretty thinly, and the users are revolting.

The phrase "divide and conquer" - of splitting your enemies up in order to reduce their combined threat - is attributed to many mighty rulers down history, but it comes to mind when looking back at the Linux desktop. And it's a strategy that suited Microsoft because it won without spending a cent in court.

Bootnote

Hang on, though, aren't most of these GNOME spin-offs very Windows-like? Aren't they at risk?

No, not any more. Microsoft has taken no legal action since 2007 and thus under the legal principle of laches it has forfeited the right to sue. Indeed, with Windows 8, the company itself moved away from the classic Start Menu-based desktop to a touch-oriented one.

Doesn't matter, though – the job was done by the time GNOME Shell and Unity came out. Meantime, it's been good news for the Xfce and LXDE desktops, which are still picking up disgruntled GNOME 2 emigrés – meaning yet more fragmentation of the Linux community. ®

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk

More from The Register

next story
New 'Cosmos' browser surfs the net by TXT alone
No data plan? No WiFi? No worries ... except sluggish download speed
'Windows 9' LEAK: Microsoft's playing catchup with Linux
Multiple desktops and live tiles in restored Start button star in new vids
iOS 8 release: WebGL now runs everywhere. Hurrah for 3D graphics!
HTML 5's pretty neat ... when your browser supports it
'People have forgotten just how late the first iPhone arrived ...'
Plus: 'Google's IDEALISM is an injudicious justification for inappropriate biz practices'
Mathematica hits the Web
Wolfram embraces the cloud, promies private cloud cut of its number-cruncher
Mozilla shutters Labs, tells nobody it's been dead for five months
Staffer's blog reveals all as projects languish on GitHub
SUSE Linux owner Attachmate gobbled by Micro Focus for $2.3bn
Merger will lead to mainframe and COBOL powerhouse
iOS 8 Healthkit gets a bug SO Apple KILLS it. That's real healthcare!
Not fit for purpose on day of launch, says Cupertino
prev story

Whitepapers

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops
Balancing user privacy and privileged access, in accordance with compliance frameworks and legislation. Evaluating any potential remote control choice.
WIN a very cool portable ZX Spectrum
Win a one-off portable Spectrum built by legendary hardware hacker Ben Heck
Storage capacity and performance optimization at Mizuno USA
Mizuno USA turn to Tegile storage technology to solve both their SAN and backup issues.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
The next step in data security
With recent increased privacy concerns and computers becoming more powerful, the chance of hackers being able to crack smaller-sized RSA keys increases.