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20 August 2009, 13:20

Health Check: Mono

Too much monkey business?

by Richard Hillesley

Monkey pic

At the turn of this decade Miguel de Icaza was the unblemished hero of the free software movement and chief architect and co-creator, with Federica Mena, of the GNOME project, which had come into being as the free software response to KDE. Now de Icaza is regarded with suspicion because of his support for Mono. What happened to bring about this change?

KDE logo KDE was the original custom desktop environment for Linux, give or take a dozen or three window managers. As of 1998, the K(ool) Desktop Environment was the first comprehensive integrated desktop environment for Linux, but KDE had a problem. It was based on the framework of Trolltech's Qt libraries which weren't available under a free software license.

"KDE was an inspirational project," de Icaza later recounted, "but at the time, the Qt toolkit on which KDE was built was a proprietary toolkit. It was a disgrace 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. So GNOME was started to make sure that we had a fully free system, and it was based on the most advanced C toolkit available at the time: the toolkit built by Peter Mathis and Spencer Kimball for their most excellent GIMP imaging software."

GNOME logo Later Trolltech relented, and KDE can now be said to be as free as GNOME - but the change in Qt's licensing regime was indisputably influenced by the rise of GNOME, the free software alternative, which had been adopted by Red Hat and other leading GNU/Linux distributions.

Proponents and stooges

Miguel de Icaza
Zoom Miguel de Icaza talks about the power and functionality of Mono during one of the keynotes at BrainShare 2008 in Salt Lake City.
Source: Novell
de Icaza hadn't come to GNOME from nowhere. He was the creator of Gnumeric and the Midnight Commander file manager, and had contributed to a number of Linux kernel developments, including the SPARC port, software RAID development and the SGI kernel enhancements. His achievements in the cause of free software didn't go without honour.

de Icaza was nominated one of Time Magazine's Innovators for the New Century in September 2000. In 1999, he received the Free Software Foundation's Award for the Advancement of Free Software for "his leadership and work on the GNOME Project", and in the same year he received MIT Technology Review's Innovator of the Year Award with an accolade by Richard Stallman, who noted that de Icaza was "not only a capable software designer, but an idealistic and determined campaigner for computer users' freedom."

de Icaza has a considerable history as a free software developer, which makes his current depiction as a stooge for Microsoft, and his own combative stance as a proponent of .NET, troubling to many.

A further complication in this story is that from the beginning GNOME owed something to de Icaza's fascination with Microsoft technologies, based as it was on "a distributed object framework similar to Microsoft's OLE" which is reflected in the original, now deprecated, mnemonic description of the project, GNU Network Object Model Environment, although the underlying philosophy beneath GNOME has since changed. And much of the current controversy around de Icaza and Mono surrounds the adoption, or proposed adoption, of Mono as a framework for the rapid development of applications for GNOME, and the proprietorial nature of the technologies that Mono uses. The story is rife with irony, not least because .NET was Microsoft's attempt to undermine Java, and the free software movement had its own issues with the proprietorial nature of Java.

Next: What is .NET for?

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