About a week and a half ago, I was nearly taken-in when an item appeared on The Register that tied recent Linux desktop woes to behind the scenes moves by Microsoft to enforce patents against GNOME. Supposedly, GNOME was violating Redmond’s patented designs of the Windows 95 desktop, most specifically the Start Menu and the Start button. According to the story painted by reporter Liam Proven, KDE was also guilty of violating the same patents, but got a pass as they benefited from the famous Novel/Microsoft patent swap deal, being they were the default desktop in SUSE.
“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.”
According to this telling of the story, it appears as if all of the brohaha that’s ensued during the last couple of years over the much maligned GNOME 3, with it’s radically changed UI meant to redefine the desktop experience, was all brought about as a response to threats Redmond was making about the design of the “decadent” GNOME 2 interface. In other words, according to Mr. Proven, GNOME 3 wasn’t brought about because of any high-minded ideas the developers had about leading us into a brave new world of desktop interfaces. Far from it. GNOME 3 was a way to keep from being sued out of existence by Microsoft.
“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 Register’s story was almost believable and anyone who was taken-in by this telling could certainly be forgiven. The writer played straight into the paranoid fears of many in the GNU/Linux crowd and did a good job of seamlessly integrating his tale of Microsoft misdeeds into the facts as they are known. It was easy to read this and think you were having a genuine “aha” moment. All of us, or many of us anyway, had already been scratching our heads over GNOME. Some of us were surprised when they made big changes to the UI at all, especially following the grief KDE went through several years back with the advent of KDE 4.
When the revolt of the GNOME users first began, most of us probably figured this story would play-out along predictable lines, again following a plot similar to what we’d seen during the KDE revolution. It seemed fair to expect that rather quickly the GNOME developers would find it beneficial to listen to their user base and make at least enough compromises to quell the uprising they were facing. Instead, they seemingly stubbornly stood by their plan and now the old GNOME desktop world is fragmented into pieces called Unity, Cinnamon, MATE and who knows what else.
The Register’s story would seem to explain it all. GNOME changed because they had no choice but to change. It was either redesign the GNOME desktop experience or get sued into oblivion by Microsoft. According to this telling, Red Hat and Ubuntu were behind the change, although Ubuntu bolted to develop their own Unity desktop after failing to prevail in getting their own way with the “new and improved” GNOME crowd.
It all seemed to make sense. Look at Unity with no Start button, basically copying the design of the classic Apple interface. We could now quit our head scratching. GNOME’s chain was being jerked by the evil Microsoft empire. There was a big problem with the story however, even for someone like me with no inside knowledge of what was really going on–a problem that rose a giant red flag.
Bread crumbs. There were no bread crumbs.
The story was written as a straight ahead Associated Press or Reuters style news story. It wasn’t presented as an opinion piece or as mere conjecture. “This happended and this happened, then this happened and this happened”…except we never found out how the writer knew how anything happened. There were no links to previous articles. There were no sources quoted to back up the writer’s claims. It was like watching Bill O’Reilly. The facts have been checked. We’ve verified our sources. We don’t need to pass them on to you. This is the way it was. Take our word for it.
But that’s not the way it was. Not at all. The article was just a sneaky little way of sowing some Microsoft FUD–or so it seems. The purpose of the article would seem to be to send the message that, indeed, Microsoft has enforceable patent claims against GNU/Linux; that’s why GNOME caved-in and changed their interface. If you’re a big company or an OEM, it’s not safe to put your eggs in the Linux basket. In the end, Microsoft will prevail. Funny (I don’t mean ha-ha), the story pretends to be pro-Linux. Where, I wonder, is Little Red Riding Hood in this tale?
While it’s true that Microsoft was still making FUD noises about Linux violating Redmond patents at the time, there was never any indication that any of these patents were specifically related to any desktop GUI. Indeed, we didn’t and still don’t know what the patents cover or if they even exist. The cry from the Linux development people was, “Show us the patents we’re violating so we can fix the situation.”
Again, there are no sources for the information found in The Register’s story, and my research has been unable to uncover any facts to support their claims. Usually The Register can be counted upon to get their facts straight. In this case, however, it seems as if they’ve posted an article that was pure fiction–and one that played right into Microsoft’s hands.
Editor’s note: Post updated 6/13/13 at approximately 3:45 pm to remove actuality. Source possibly misrepresented.