Linux Start-Up Poised With Desktop Environment

BOSTON -- The Gnome desktop for Linux is already a better application environment than Microsoft Windows, claimed founders of a venture capital-backed software start-up named Helix Code, speaking to a crowd of IBM Corp. development partners here.

This month, Helix Code issued a prerelease edition of the Helix Gnome Desktop, a suite of 80 applications aimed at meeting the needs of the Linux community for a user-friendly front end environment.

All of Helix Code’s "Windows-alternative" software is downloadable free of charge, and developers can use the code in other applications without paying licensing fees, said Miguel de Icaza, a co-founder of both Helix Code and the Gnome project before that.

During an event held by IBM developerWorks, de Icaza demonstrated Gnumeric, a Gnome spreadsheet included in the Gnome Desktop, along with Evolution, an upcoming Gnome package that combines a mailer, calendar, and contact manager.

De Icaza co-founded the Gnome project with Federico Mena at the Universida Nacional Autonoma de Mexico back in 1997. Now, de Icaza has teamed with MIT grad Nat Friedman to co-launch the Helix Code software firm.

Helix Code is funded by a group of private investors, together with LinuxFund, a venture capital group. The Cambridge, Mass.-based software start-up currently employs only about 20 people, mainly developers. Through the Gnome project, volunteer developers around the world are also continuing to collaborate on building Gnome.

"Helix Code is to Gnome what Red Hat is to Linux," Friedman told the developer crowd in Boston. Friedman added that he’s made a personal investment in Helix Code, spurred by his own belief in Open Source.

Gnome is an acronym for Gnu Network Object Model Environment. Gnu, in turn, is the name of the project which created the General Public License, a set of rules used in the Linux community for distributing development code free of charge.

Gnome is now set for inclusion in the next releases of both Red Hat’s Linux and Linux PPC, the Macintosh computer’s hardware platform. But Gnome has also been running into some hefty competition from KDE, a rival desktop environment.

"Gnome is an interesting project to create a very flexible user interface for Linux and other Open Source operating systems," remarked Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst at International Data Corp. (IDC). "Other people are then going to take that software and incorporate it into their Linux distributions."

Kusnetzky expects that virtually all Linux distribution will incorporate both Gnome and KDE. "And then, depending on the (particular) distribution of Linux, either KDE or Gnome will be the primary, and whichever isn’t the primary will be the alternative."

The Helix Gnome Desktop is designed for easy customizability to different "personalities," such as Windows or Macintosh, de Icaza said in Boston.

De Icaza told the developers that he came up with the idea for the Gnome project after seeing Internet Explorer (IE) for the first time a few years back. The Linux guru was amazed that Microsoft used a component-based architecture, but still ended up with such a gargantuan application.

When the Helix Code software presentation in Boston suffered a momentary glitch, de Icaza turned the onlookers’ attention to Microsoft mishaps. "That was a Bill Gates welcome," joked de Icaza, who was recently named one of "50 Leaders of the New Millennium" by Time Magazine and CNN.

As Friedman sees it, Microsoft "indentures developers to a specific operating system," in stark contrast to the Open Source environment of Linux. IBM, on the other hand, "understands the Open Source model," according to Friedman.

De Icaza gave the demos during a networking event for developers held by IBM developerWorks. Chris Bahr, program director for IBM developerWorks and alphaWorks, said that developerWorks’ decision to sponsor the presentation was driven by IBM’s need to "listen to developers."

Gene Lebl, a Gnome developer, is a also guest columnist on the IBM developerWorks site, pointed out an IBM spokesperson.

But the spokesperson also denied that IBM is providing financial backing to either Helix Code or Gnome.

The Helix Code co-founders didn’t go easy in Boston on Sun, either. "StarOffice is not free software," de Icaza proclaimed, adding that although Sun’s StarOffice applications can be downloaded free of charge off the Web, StarOffice code isn’t available for free to developers.

De Icaza described Helix Code’s forthcoming Evolution as "a framework for creating a groupware environment." As to the specifics, Evolution’s mailer, calendar and contact manager will be linked together by the Evolution Shell. The Shell will include a Short Cut for quick access to the components, plus an Executive Summary for a quick overview of tasks, appointments, and new mail.

Users will be able to customize the Executive Summary with news headlines, weather, and other information from online sources such as slashdot.org, a Web site frequented by the Linux community.

Users will also be able to sync up both the calendar and contact manager with Palm organizers. The calendar and contact manager will each be divided into a front-end user interface and back-end server. The local contact manager server will be able to communicate with remote contact servers, for sharing of contact information across an organization, de Icaza said.

De Icaza also demo’d Gnumeric, a Gnome spreadsheet with native support for Excel. Microsoft also does some "good things," he acknowledged. Evidently, one of these "good things" is Excel, a spreadsheet that de Icaza dubbed "surprisingly beautiful." Gnumeric comes with import/export filters for HTML, Quattro Pro, Lotus 1-2-3, and a number of other desktop environments, too.

Gnumeric and Evolution both make use of Bonobo, a CORBA-based component system. Bonobo allows components to be embedded in other applications to extend their capabilities, according to de Icaza. So if you’re reading your e-mail in Evolution, and you get new mail with an attached Gnumeric (or Excel) spreadsheet, Evolution will simply launch Gnumeric as an embedded component to display the attachment.

But De Icaza also took aim at Microsoft for creating COM, instead of going along with CORBA, an industry standard for object development. "Basically, (COM) is ugly all over the place," he complained.

"COM is extremely monolithic. With CORBA, you can take components out – and put them back in – much more easily," agreed Dr. Carey Bunks, senior scientist in applied physics at GTE Internetworking and author of the book Grokking the Gimp. Gimp, an image editing/paint tool somewhat along the lines of Adobe PhotoShop, appears in the Helix Gnome Desktop, although it can also be used in other environments, according to Bunks.

Users can download either the entire Helix Gnome Desktop, or individual components. Additional components include games, a screensaver, personal information management, multimedia, system and Internet utilities, and themes, a set of components for "changing the look and feel of applications without recompiling them."

As its next big project, Helix Code plans to build a full-featured Gnome word processor with support for all major word-processing document formats.

"I think it’s very interesting that a venture capital company is willing to take a gamble on making a commercial grade version of Gnome. This argues that there’s a lot of potential," Bunks says.