Ubuntu and “desktop environments”

It used to be that when you installed any of the most well-known Linux-based operating systems, they would ask you whether you wanted something called “Gnome” or something called “KDE” as your “desktop environment”. Sometimes they offered “XFCE” or other options too. In 2007, Opensuse still does this, and so does Mandriva.

At this point I could explain what “Gnome” and “KDE” and “XFCE” are, but I won’t, because it’s a boring geek thing that you almost certainly don’t need to know. I mention it only because one of Ubuntu’s competitive advantages, over Opensuse and Mandriva at least, is that Ubuntu’s installer does not bother you with such drivel.

If you’re the sort of person who does know what “Gnome” and “KDE” and “XFCE” are, you can switch between them after you have installed Ubuntu, or you can download specialized versions from separate Web sites. But recently some Ubuntu community members have proposed that we introduce this choice in the Ubuntu installer too. For example, Tristan Rhodes:

I am leaning towards a single Ubuntu Desktop version that allows the user to select Gnome (default), KDE, and XFCE during install. Even more importantly, there should be an option under “System > Preferences” that will allow a user to change between those whenever they want.

I have never seen anyone suggest that Windows or Mac OS X should do this. Nobody seriously thinks, for example, that Microsoft should have an A-team and a B-team who work on separate graphical interfaces and separate sets of applications, that both of these should be included with Windows, and that when people install Windows they should be asked which one they want. It would be ludicrous. And that Opensuse and Mandriva still ask a question like this does not stop it from being ludicrous.

This is an area where I hope we can improve in the Ubuntu community. There are still many people who think that the scariness of an operating system installation is a good place to ask people unnecessary questions about things they’ve never heard of. There are still many people who seriously think that “Gnome” and “KDE” and “XFCE” are acceptable terms to use when communicating with non-technical people. And there are still many people who talk about operating systems providing “desktops” or “desktop environments”. I already have a desktop environment, thanks. I call it a “desk”, and I put my computer on it.