Health Check: Mandriva
Catch a falling star
by Richard Hillesley
Mandriva began life in July 1998 as Linux Mandrake in France in Gael Duval's bedroom after he ported a KDE 1.0 desktop onto Red Hat Linux 5.1, uploaded the result onto two FTP servers, went away on holiday, and came back to find that he had a popular and successful Linux distribution on his hands.
KDE 1.0 had just been released (12 July, 1998), but Red Hat had yet to include the desktop environment because of reservations about the licensing of the Qt C++ cross platform GUI toolkit, on which KDE was built.
Duval not only included the latest version of KDE, but added touches of his own such as making "access to the CD-ROM and Floppy drives transparent (e.g. no need to mount disks by typing "mount /dev/...")." When Duval returned from his two week holiday there were more than two hundred messages waiting for him, "including new ideas, one patch, and two companies (located in the US and Australia) announcing that they had already started selling Mandrake on CDs."
The combination of Red Hat and KDE proved a winning combination for Linux Mandrake, and began a roller coaster ride for Mandrake/Mandriva and its developers that has continued to this day.
The Kool aid acid test
The choice of KDE was the first momentous step for Mandrake. The Kool Desktop Environment, later known as the K Desktop environment and even later just as KDE , had been launched by Matthias Ettrich with an announcement on de.comp.os.linix.misc in October 1996.
KDE was revolutionary in its time because it was the first attempt to create a truly integrated desktop environment for Unix-like operating systems. Ettrich was a student and lead developer on the LyX project which brought a "what you see is what you mean" (WYSIWYM) front end to LaTeX, and became interested in the wider problem of developing a coherent and accessible desktop for Linux after installing Linux on his girlfriend's computer.
Linux had a variety of window managers, but no comprehensive toolkit for the development of applications with a common look and feel. For Ettrich, the Qt libraries, developed by Trolltech of Norway, were the answer to the problem. But the use of Qt as a framework for KDE became the source of yet another problem.
Qt was open source in the sense that the code was visible, but the license wasn't approved or compatible with the GPL. Since nearly all KDE applications were written under the GPL, this meant that the applications were in violation of their own licences.
A legacy to all humanity
Miguel de Icaza, at that time a rising star of the free software movement and co-creator, with Federica Mena, of the rival GNOME project, expressed the mixed feelings of many users and developers. "KDE was an inspirational project," he told Linux Journal, "but at the time, the Qt toolkit on which KDE was built was a proprietary toolkit."
"It was a disgrace," he lamented, "that everyone in the community had worked so hard to create a fully open-source desktop (a legacy to all humanity) that we would give up in the end because of the lack of a free toolkit."
Ettrich took a more pragmatic approach. "For the success of KDE, a stable, controlled basis class library was an important factor," he said in 1998. "It could have been an open source one, of course, if one was available. We in the KDE team wanted to write free software."
GNOME was sponsored by the Free Software Foundation (FSF) as a response to the problems around Qt, and was based on the Gtk toolkit developed by Peter Mathis and Spencer Kimball for GIMP, but Ettrich felt that Qt was the better option. "Gtk+ is an impressive and very complete toolkit. If only it was written in C++, the decision between Qt and Gtk would have been really hard. As it is now, Qt programming is much easier, requires less code and feels more natural."
Qt later went through a variety of license changes, and the issues between KDE, which had been the subject of a protracted flame war, and the free and open source software community, have long since been resolved.
Red Hat Linux never used KDE as its default desktop, choosing instead to go with GNOME, which left the door open for Duval and Mandrake.