Gnome is an acronym for GNU Object Model Environment. That by itself doesn't convey much information, though the GNU part (itself an acronym for GNU's Not Unix) is a tip-off that the Gnome Project is part of the GNU Project. But more about GNU later. Gnome's fundamental goal is to make Unix and Unix-like operating systems easier to use, especially free or open-source operating systems such as Linux and the BSD variants - FreeBSD, OpenBSD and NetBSD.

The key to Gnome (pronounced guh-nome) is that it strives to be completely free: All of its components are distributed freely under open-source licenses.

Ease of use for Gnome means the Gnome desktop, which offers an easy-to-use, windows-based environment. It also means giving programmers a development platform with a rich set of tools for building powerful applications. Finally, it means building an office-productivity application suite, Gnome Office.

Familiar User Interface

Gnome is most visible as the default desktop environment installed with recent versions of Linux from Research Triangle Park, N.C.-based Red Hat Software Inc. It's the graphical user interface (GUI) that greets you after installation.

Anyone who has used a modern operating system with a GUI, such as Microsoft Corp.'s Windows or Apple Computer Inc.'s Mac OS, will find the Gnome GUI at least vaguely familiar and shouldn't have any problem running applications that use it.

The Gnome development platform includes the Gnome architecture as well as Gnome libraries, development tools, advanced graphical programs and other tools for building software that integrates into the Gnome framework. This results in a consistent interface across applications as well as an advanced component architecture.

Part of GNU

The Gnome Project is a part of the GNU Project, the brainchild of Richard M. Stallman. He began writing free software full-time under the aegis of the GNU Project in 1984, faithful to his stated belief that software should be free and that while there's nothing wrong with selling the service of programming, the sale of proprietary software is immoral.

Though the GNU Project's original goal for was to create a completely free Unix system, the GNU operating system has been eclipsed by Linux and, to a lesser degree, the open-source BSD variants. GNU has succeeded in producing some popular tools, including the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP), a free software replacement for San Jose-based Adobe Systems Inc.'s Photoshop; emacs, a powerful text editor; GCC, a free compiler collection for C, C++ and other C-related languages; and Gnome itself.

The Gnome Project's efforts include developing the Gnome desktop environment, which is what most people mean when they refer to Gnome. But there's also the Gnome development environment, which includes a widget repository (widgets are graphical objects that can be incorporated into GUI applications); the Gnome Bug Tracker service (; and the Gnome Concurrent Versions System (CVS) tree. A CVS is a revision-control tool for tracking changes made to code by different programmers, and is invaluable for any open-source project. Also included are a set of build tools for putting together Gnome software to run on different hardware platforms.

The Gnome Project is also working on Gnome Office. Its goal is to create a complete set of productivity applications for the Gnome desktop.

Some of the pieces of Gnome Office include AbiWord (word processing software), Gnumeric (a spreadsheet application), GIMP, Dia (software for creating structured diagrams), GNOME-PIM (a personal information manager) and Gnome-DB (database software).

According to the Gnome Project, most of these applications are still in beta or even alpha release, but they are expected to mature rapidly.

Competition: Gnome vs. KDE

For every program, product or project in the computer industry, there's a competitor.

Gnome's competitor is the KDE Project, which also aims to provide a graphical desktop environment for free software operating systems. KDE stands for K Desktop Environment.

KDE came first, but the people behind Gnome decided to build their own environment because they felt that the license for a critical piece of KDE wasn't sufficiently free.

The software in question, Qt, is a GUI software tool kit published by Trolltech AS. Qt is offered free of charge to people developing free software, and it's sold to those who wish to use it to develop software that will be sold. There are also conditions under which a developer would have to pay fees to Oslo-based Trolltech for the use of Qt. This summer, Trolltech modified its license to guarantee that Qt would always be available for free software development.

Users may have the option of choosing between Gnome and KDE for a long time.

Deciding which desktop environment is best will depend on which applications you want to use, as well as which environments those applications can run on.

Loshin is a freelance writer in Arlington, Mass.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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