Have you ever wondered why your Linux operating system looks the way it does? Free and open source desktops offer numerous interfaces. The interface that appeared when you fired up your Linux USB stick for the first time didn’t come out of nowhere.
Most distributions of Linux turn to one of two desktop environments to provide the crux of what their users see: GNOME or KDE. That’s because these are the two oldest desktop environments for free and open source desktops. KDE came first in 1996, with GNOME following a few years later in 1999. Of the two, GNOME appears to be more widely adopted. It happens to be the default on the most popular version of desktop Linux.
But these aren’t the only two desktop environments out there, nor are they even the only popular ones. Why do some projects choose to go a different route? Someone had to make the decision to ship the particular desktop experience that they did. Why did they? There are way too many variations of Linux out there for me to explain them all, but here are six that, if you’re relatively new to Linux, you may be likely to encounter.
When people offer the Linux kernel along with the software needed to provide you with a complete computing experience, the end result is what’s known as a Linux distribution (“distro” for short). Ubuntu is the most well-known distro made for desktop computers. The most recent version of Ubuntu made news recently for shipping with the GNOME desktop environment rather than an interface called Unity that Ubuntu has been shipping with for much of the past decade.
This isn’t the first time Ubuntu has used GNOME. Ubuntu originally used the desktop environment from 2004 to 2010. Ubuntu’s 6-month release schedule is actually based on GNOME’s, with new versions of Ubuntu launching roughly a month after new versions of GNOME. When Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, created the Unity interface, it did so relying on some GNOME libraries and software.
Fedora has been around a year longer than Ubuntu, and it happens to have the largest company in the open source world as its sponsor: Red Hat. It handles some of Fedora’s costs and employs a number of people who contribute to the project. This is because the company uses the open source software in Fedora to create its own commercial offering, Red Hat Enterprise Linux.
As it turns out, Red Hat happens to be the largest corporate contributer to GNOME as of 2010. Fedora’s close relationship with Red Hat, with people developing both Fedora and GNOME, places the distro in a position to implement many aspects of GNOME before others. Fedora was the first non-rolling release distro to provide GNOME Software and Wayland support, for example.
Unlike the two aforementioned Linux distros, openSUSE does not technically have a default desktop environment. Instead, you are presented with the option to install either GNOME or KDE. But openSUSE has historically adopted KDE as its top pick, and the project still has a reputation for providing a top-notch KDE experience.
KDE and openSUSE both have their origins in Germany. SUSE, the first company to market Linux for enterprise use (and the sponsor of openSUSE), was founded there in 1992. A computer scientist in Germany, Matthias Ettrich, founded the KDE project four years later.
Elementary OS: Pantheon
Elementary OS founder Daniel Fore was originally an enthusiastic GNOME user. Known online as danrabbit, he gained attention for his icon sets and app themes, which became popular across many Linux distributions. However, he and others had broader ideas for the GNOME desktop that there wasn’t enough consensus around to incorporate. So they branched off to create their own desktop environment, now known as Pantheon.
With a dock at the bottom plus a gray theme with blue folder icons, many people feel a Mac-vibe from Pantheon. But the GNOME origins are easy to see. The Applications menu remains in the top left, the date and time are in the center, and system icons are in the top right. Once you get past the Close and Maximize buttons, app toolbars aren’t that different from their GNOME counterparts.
Linux Mint: Cinnamon
The Cinnamon desktop environment is available for many distros, but Linut Mint is the one it calls home. That’s because the Mint developers created the desktop environment as a result of the changes introduced in GNOME 3.0. Cinnamon originally used the same underlying technology as GNOME 3. It was an alternative interface you could use in place of the GNOME Shell to interact with the same apps.
That changed with the release of Cinnamon 2.0 in 2013. Now the project is its own distinct desktop environment with separate apps rewritten for better integration.
Budgie began as the default desktop environment for Evolve OS, which became the distro now known as Solus. Ikey Doherty is a key developer of both. Budgie originally levered existing technologies to provide a simple and efficient interface with relatively little code to maintain. Early on, Budgie took a great deal of inspiration from Chrome OS.
As Budgie gained users, expectations grew. Now Budgie is more configurable, and it can be found in other distros such as Arch Linux, openSUSE, and Ubuntu Budgie.
Not All Distros Have a Default
Some Linux distributions don’t have a default desktop. Arch Linux and Gentoo tell you to build your system from scratch. Even if your distro does have a default, it doesn’t matter which desktop you use. Most let you switch to a different one without much difficulty. Installing KDE on Ubuntu or Fedora — both GNOME-based distros by default — is as simple as entering a single command into the terminal.
But oftentimes you will have the best experience sticking with the desktop your distro came with. There’s a history there, a relationship that has developed over years.
Do you like your Linux distro’s default desktop environment? Do you wish it would adopt a different one? Which one? Let’s talk.
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