This week saw the open source release of the Common Desktop Environment (CDE) under the LGPL licence. We’re going to take a quick look at what the release offers and get a few words with Peter Howkins, who along with Jon Trulson, is an administrator for the project.
CDE began life in 1993 when some of the heavy hitters in the world of commercial Unix, such as Sun, IBM and Novell formed the Common Open Desktop Environment in order to make a universal front end for their workstations and servers. The lineage is a mixture of earlier X11 window managers and IBM’s OS/2 Workplace Shell along with a few touches from the other desktops of the era. The resulting desktop environment ended up as the user interface for most commercial Unix distributions (such as Solaris) before it was phased out in favour of GNOME over the course of the late 90s and early 2000s. The snag was that source was only available under a commercial licence, and that’s why it didn’t make a bigger impact in the world of Linux.
It’s important to note that what we have at this point is unlikely to serve, initially, as a challenger to the more established Linux DEs such as GNOME and KDE. Although this desktop environment may yet be built into something of more universal appeal, what were have at the moment is more of history lesson than a go-to choice for a usable desktop.
The release comes in the form of source code that can be compiled on Linux, and this builds the desktop environment itself along with some small applications such as a hypertext-driven help system, configuration tools and an email client. At the moment, the build instructions are a trifle complicated, but by following the instructions on the website, it compiled without problems within a Ubuntu 12.04 VM. That said, it took quite a long time to build, which is surprising, given the age of the code.
We asked Peter how be became involved in this project and he told us, “I have always enjoyed using CDE, from when I first encountered it on Sun machines in the late 1990s. Under Linux I had used a variety of different environments but always wondered if CDE would become easily available. So, in 2005, I sent an email to The Open Group asking if they had considered open-sourcing CDE, just on the off-chance. I got back a very polite response, that they had looked into it, but unless there was significant demand for it, it would remain closed.”
His appetite whetted, he then set up an online petition, and when this reached 1200 signatures, he contacted The Open Group again. “This led to a slow burn of clearing various internal matters within The Open Group and they cleared these by Oct 2011”, he told us. “Once we decided to go ahead, my contributions were contacting all the interested parties again, coordinating our efforts and once the code was available, re-porting CDE to Linux. From my first contact with The Open Group it’s taken, 6 years 11 months. But more fairly, about 10 months since we all decided to ahead with this.”
At the moment, Motif, the widget library that also sprang out of The Open Group, is still only available with a restrictive licence and this new release of CDE builds against the OpenMotif project. This made us wonder about the relationship between OpenCDE, an open source reimplimentation of CDE, and this new release. According to Peter, “There is a large overlap of OpenCDE users and the people that have been helping us with this release. Karsten Pedersen (project lead of OpenCDE) is currently working on the FreeBSD port of CDE, for example. We hope that all OpenCDE users will be happy that CDE is now available and we hope that all aspects of CDE and OpenCDE can be merged together for the benefit of the users.” It also seems that a release of the Motif source code may be on the cards in the near future.
At the moment CDE looks quaint, to put it nicely, but it is a functional DE. Consider that we may have reached a turning point in Linux desktop environments as the “big two” have never been the subjects of greater criticism. Although badly in need of an update, CDE always seems to find fans wherever it is encountered, and indeed, current traditionalist favourite Xfce did start out as a CDE reimplementation, before it changed direction to something closer to a GNOME 2.0 replacement. As with all things open source, progress will depend on community and developer interest.
When asked to expound on the future plans for the project, Peter told us: “Long term we need to listen to our users and start to provide the features needed for a modern UNIX desktop, under one major caveat: whatever we add, CDE will remain CDE, we did not wait this long for an open-source release to throw away the UI as soon as we get it.”
At the moment the project consists of about ten people, including the the two main administrators. Take a look at it. Does CDE float your boat? If so, head along to the project page or log in to the IRC channel to debate how it could be extended.