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Why the default desktop environment of most popular linux distros is gnome? KDE seems to me an equally good desktop environment. Is it for licence reason? historic? or else?

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So, a complete answer to your question involves a bit of history. This is covered well in the book REBEL CODE by Glyn Moody, Chapter 15, Trolls Versus Gnomes. It is an interesting story.

Back in the mid 1990s Matthias Ettrich became interested in Linux. (Matthias is also well known for starting the LyX project). He was concerned about usability issues, as in ordinary people being able to use Linux, which back then was mostly for highly technical types, hackers and so forth. He happened to come across the Qt toolkit, created by Trolltech. This toolkit was proprietary, but apparently Matthias did not consider that to be a sufficiently important drawback. He was what one might term as belonging to the 'pragmatic' wing of the free software community. At around that time he started the KDE project based on the Qt toolkit. If you look at the original announcement (courtesy of Wikipedia's KDE page), you will see that Matthias referred to the Kool Desktop Environment. You don't hear about Kool any more. :-) I guess everyone is too embarrassed by it.

Anyway, what one might term the 'purist' wing of the free software community, notably including one Richard Stallman and his Free Software Foundation, were alarmed by this turn of events. So the competing GNOME project was started, whose original leader was Miguel De Icaza, who happens to be on this site. Miguel was right in the middle of all this, so he'd be the ideal person for a history lesson. The new GNOME project used a toolkit called GTK (Gimp Tool Kit) which had been created for the GIMP by Kimball and Mattis around the same time (the GIMP project was started around 1995).

Then Trolltech started feeling the pressure, and switched to the Q Public License (QPL) in 1998, and finally added the GPL as an alternative in 2000. By then GNOME had a lot of momentum, and the world had two free desktop projects instead of one.

Now, Red Hat, who then as now was one of the market leaders, was and is as concerned about software freedom as the FSF, though I gather for different reasons. So, they stuck to shipping GNOME. Debian, of course, also went with GNOME. (This was in the days before Ubuntu, which was first released in 2004). So even today, Debian and Ubuntu default to GNOME. Some other distributions chose to go with KDE, notably SUSE. I remember switching from Red Hat 5.2 (I think) to SUSE 6.4 in August 1999, and being blown away by the beauty of KDE 1. And SUSE is more closely identified with KDE, and Red Hat is more closely identified with GNOME, even today.

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For info, Debian (temporarily) switched to Xfce as default DE in November 2013. –  landroni Jan 22 at 22:45
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There was a lot of uncertainty regarding licensing of the Qt library (on which KDE is built) back when most distros were choosing between KDE and GNOME. That isn't a problem any more, but by the time it was cleared up most distros had already chosen, and this is the sort of thing that they aren't comfortable switching up without a really good reason.

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Philosophy.

Most distros tend to like to focus on the most basic of end-users that can't do anything for themselves. The gnome philosophy tends to be "it works this way and only this way" and leaves the users in a common configuration you can help them through and offers a clean and consistent interface.

KDE, on the other hand, is extremely powerful and extremely flexible. You can configure the heck out of it and tailor to your specific needs. My KDE setup is extremely customized and probably doesn't match anyone else's. Because of this, though, a user could very easily get into trouble if they don't know what they're doing. So it's likely considered "less safe".

Some of it also comes from very old decisions. Back in the KDE days when it was unclear what was going to happen with the Qt licensing options, some distros went with Gnome. Now that Qt was safe to use and redistribute under a *GPL distro, if the decision was restarted it might change the outcome. But most distros wouldn't want to "make a switch" once a critical decision was made, as it would confuse people (even if it only affected new users on a machine).

/me sits back and waits for his reputation to go down for this answer. But I'm calling it like I see it.

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Gnome does seem very dumbed down though. Even Linus Torvalds made such comments. –  Andrew Lambert May 31 '11 at 18:05
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And it's getting worse, configuration options disappear and the default is wrong (for my tastes). –  starblue May 31 '11 at 18:40
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I agree on most points, but this seems too much like flame bait. For example, Most distros tend to like to focus on the most basic of end-users that can't do anything for themselves. I would highly disagree. What relatively "mainstream" distros are "simple"? Ubuntu of course, Mint (although that's basically ubuntu), Debian(?), Red Hat (?. Arguable, since it's mostly commercial sites), Suse. Out of those, I think only Ubuntu uses Gnome. (Mint too?). (I think debian's default is KDE?). Suse and RedHat both use KDE. –  Falmarri May 31 '11 at 19:59
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And then the rest of the mainstream distros I wouldn't call simple, nor do they normally come with a default DE. Arch, gentoo, slackware, all of those I believe don't have any DE by default, and I think the majority of the userbase uses KDE. It's all meaningless though, since different versions come with different defaults, and some let you select at install time. –  Falmarri May 31 '11 at 20:01
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@Falmarri: Of the big boys that express preference (Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, SuSE, Mint), it's only SuSE that defaults to KDE. –  Tshepang May 31 '11 at 21:20
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May be because most Linux distros are GNU/Linux distros and GNOME historically stands for GNU Network Object Model Environment?

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I really would like to know why this was downvoted. Is a GUI worth a flame-war? –  Nils Oct 26 '11 at 20:58
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I think everyone here misses the point. When linux was finally starting to come into wider acceptance, and distros like Ubuntu came around, machines weren't all that powerful. The consensus back then (2003?) was that KDE was bloatware because apparently the community felt it was larger, slower, and took up more resources than they felt the DE should.

However, I think most of the critics of KDE were the type of users that would use something like fluxbox, or awesome, claiming that KDE looked like a windows clone, and all they need is a terminal window. So with only detractors from KDE who whouldn't be using gnome anyway, Ubuntu went with gnome. And that's the only reason (imo) gnome has stuck around. I don't have statistics (although I'd love to see them), but I'd bet that the vast majority of gnome users are ubuntu users. And I mean that in a statistical sense. More people who DON'T use ubuntu as a distro use KDE as a manager.

Those criticisms may have been just back then (I have no authority to say. I'm a relatively linux DE newbie. My first full time-linux desktop was in 2004 and I got berated by my teacher (In a joking manner of course) that friends don't let friends use gnome, so I switched to KDE.)

Even before gnome turned evil (left handed window buttons? Come on, seriously? Unity? Ugh), KDE is a MUCH more pleasant working environment.

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Left-handed windows is an Ubuntu change, not GNOME. –  Tshepang May 31 '11 at 21:24
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Unity is an Ubuntu doing, not GNOME's. –  Tshepang May 31 '11 at 21:25
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Where do you get most non-Ubuntu people use KDE? Fedora is pretty big and so is Debian, and they both default to GNOME. RHEL does too, and this was before even Fedora existed. Sure Ubuntu increased the number of GNOME users, but I had the idea the GNOME userbase was at least as large as KDE's before Ubuntu was ever born. –  Tshepang May 31 '11 at 21:27
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Interesting. I didn't realize the left handed buttons were ubuntu specific changes. I guess I don't know what I'm talking about. I thought Fedora and Debian both used KDE as default. Well, forget what I said then –  Falmarri Jun 2 '11 at 20:13
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