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Proprietary Art: How Microsoft didn't splinter the Linux desktop

Summer 2022

The year of the Linux Desktop

A recent blog post I happened across argues that Microsoft, in 2006, used threats of patent litigation to effectively stop Gnome 2 in its tracks: Gnome 2 was at the time on its way to total desktop domination but Microsoft's clever lawyering caused mayhem in the FOSS world, splintered the Linux desktop effort and led to the creation of Gnome 3 and Unity. Allegedly.

The article is correct in that Microsoft struck some kind of deal with Novell. It's also true that they (and plenty of other tech companies) have used a wide variety of tactics in their attempts to scare users away from other operating systems and vendors: Apple sued Microsoft over Windows (and lost), SCO sued IBM over Linux (and lost), and so on. Even losing a court case doesn't necessarily mean they're unsuccessful: loud noises may well be sufficient to sway the minds of nervous corporations when investing in technology platforms.

Much of the article, however, strikes me as problematic. I've previously dissected the allure of historical cherry-picking when trying to explain various annoyances in computing. This isn't always intentional and it's easy to make mistakes, because the history of software inventions is a deeply tangled web of inspiration (or copying, or stealing - whatever you want to call it) and incremental improvements dating back to the very first general purpose computers ever made.

As evil as Microsoft was and is, they've also gotten some things right over the years. I personally think that Windows 95 (and my preferred Windows OS of all time, NT 4) provided a great overall desktop experience. But, as with almost everything else in the world of GUI:s, most if it is clever improvements and combinations of previously existing concepts.

Let's examine some of the article's claims!

GUI Conundrums

Claim: Microsoft invented the Win95 desktop from scratch. [...] The task bar, the Start menu, the system tray, "My Computer", "Network Neighbourhood", all that: all original, *patented* Microsoft designs. There was nothing like it before. [...] (A) window menu at top left and minimize/maximize/close at top right [...]

At least some of these contraptions are certainly patented by Microsoft - filed in 1995 and granted in 1999. Software patents are strange and terrible and though there are a lot of them these days, they often (at least to an amateur like me) seem to take very little prior art into account. However, patent law doesn't matter much regarding the claims in the article. When it comes to the concepts listed, calling them original may be a simplification for the sake of argument, but saying they were invented from scratch and that there was nothing like it before means venturing out on very thin ice.

The Start Menu

It's easy to find several different sources of inspiration for the Start Menu. The Apple menu in MacOS, for example, is a nice example of an ever-present, colorful icon opening up a menu used to launch various applications and system functions. In MacOS 7.5 (released in 1994), the Apple menu also features hierarchical menus for Recent Applications, Recent Documents and Recent Servers. The latter trio might well have been Apple riffing off various Chicago beta previews released by Microsoft - but this, of course, says something about the perceived threat level of any possible patents, existing or expected.

Apart from the Apple menu, configurable, hierarchical quick access menus for program launching and system configuration has been around for a long time on a wide variety of systems. Tom LaStrange's TWM window manager for X, for example, featured such menus - though triggered by clicking in the root window instead of an always visible button decorated with a prominent icon.

To find more examples of such ever-present buttons, we can instead look at Silicon Graphics' Indigo Magic desktop (or even its predecessor Iris Workspace) from 1993, which features a widget called Toolchest. The Toolchest has several icon-adorned, Start-like buttons that open configurable, hierarchical menus - all of them for launching programs and accessing system features. This, in turn, is a variation on DECWindows' Session Manager which premiered in 1988. Other similar concepts were made available to Windows users through various third party add-ons predating Windows 95, such as in PubTech's File Organizer from the late 1980:s.

The Task Bar

First thing that happens is you get this little icon box over here, which contains all the icons for all the windows that you have up on your screen. [...] Almost all DECWindows windows will have this banner up at the top here. [...] And this has various functions on it. The one up here in the left here, the little square here, is the shrink to icon button so you can put your cursor there and click on the button and it will shrink it down to an icon in the icon box, and you can see that the icon changes from light to dark.
- Tom Cocks, DECWindows Demo (1988)

The task bar is little more than a list of open windows. Several window managers for X featured this long before Windows 95, including the previously mentioned TWM and DECWindows, both from 1988.

The System Tray

The system tray in Windows 95 is basically a collection of minor utilities and quick access functions. As such, it is indeed reminiscent of Acorn's Arthur desktop from 1987, as mentioned in the original article. It's not unthinkable that this inspired the NeXTStep dock as suggested. There were several more systems released between Arthur and Windows 95 that provided the user with a clock, various status displays and quick launch buttons. One prominent example is Hewlett Packard's VUE desktop, which later turned into the Common Desktop Environment (CDE) used by (among others) Sun, IBM, Digital and of course HP themselves.

Network Neighborhood

To go out over the network, I go back to my computer and I have this globe right here. And I click on this globe and it shows me everything on the network. And so I go into the demo server here, and it'll show me the different departments. And I go into the marketing department [...]
- Steve Jobs, NeXTStep 3 Demo (1992)

As evident from the quote above, NeXTStep featured a hierarchical, browsable view of networked computers long before Windows 95. Other systems may have as well; I'm not sure. In this quote Jobs also refers an icon representing "my computer", as he says, which is fairly interesting.

My Computer

My Computer in Windows 95 is basically just a collection of icons for devices connected to the machine (typically storage media and printers) and a shortcut to the Control Panel. This is hardly a Microsoft invention - in fact, it's been the bread and butter of desktop environments since the Xerox Star and Apple's Lisa were released in the early 1980:s. It has since then appeared in various shapes on pretty much every computer capable of running such a system, including GEOS on the Commodore 64. The use of a computer icon representing the local machine, serving as the basis of file system navigation was, as discussed above, present in NeXTStep years before it appeared in Windows 95.

Window decorations

The windows in Windows 95 does feature an icon in the top left corner that opens up a window menu, and various other widgets in the top right corner of the window. The problem here is that several other windowing systems have very similar features. The mini icon in the top left was previously implemented in OS/2 2.0 as early as 1992 - a version developed solely by IBM, without the involvement of Microsoft.

Apart from previous versions of Windows itself, The Motif and CDE window managers also feature a widget opening a window menu in the top left and maximize/minimize widgets in the top right. Furthermore, the look of these widgets in Windows 95 are more or less exact copies of those used in NeXTStep before it, perhaps indicating their level of originality.

The Shoulders of Giants

Microsoft surely improved and combined these many various concepts in interesting, useful and sometimes novel ways. But, as hopefully proven, they did not invent it all from scratch. That doesn't mean Windows 95 wasn't innovative, good or hugely influential, because it surely was. It means that caution should be taken when making categorical claims about software firsts, regardless of them being patented or not.

Legal woes

Claim: Microsoft was threatening to sue all the Linux vendors shipping Windows 95-like desktops. [...] SUSE signed a patent-sharing deal [...] Red Hat and Ubuntu refused to sign. So, both needed *non* Windows like desktops, ASAP [...] So both RH and Ubuntu switched to non-Windows-like desktops by default. [...] Kubuntu (is) not official [...]

The above (condensed) quote details a series of events that may seem completely plausible if it wasn't for the time frame involved. According to the article, Microsoft presented these threats in late 2006, but Red Hat and Ubuntu didn't change their default desktops until almost five years later. Ubuntu switched their main distribution from Gnome 2.x to Unity in 2011, the same year Red Hat switched to the newly released Gnome 3.0.

This doesn't exactly strike me as companies in any kind of hurry to avoid what would no doubt have been an extremely costly patent litigation, possibly leading to their demise regardless of whether they'd have won or not. If they had really felt the need to switch away from Gnome 2.x ASAP, there were at the time several other viable options for them, with various levels of maturity.

Patching Gnome 2 would have been one way to do it; shuffling about and redesigning some widgets would probably be enough to calm the situation down, had it been necessary - especially considering the ample amounts of prior art described above. Another option would've been XFCE, which at the time was more of a modern CDE clone; the ROX desktop, reminiscent of the previously mentioned Acorn Arthur interface; and a whole host of smaller desktops and window managers (such as Enlightenment 17) providing some foundation to build on.

Previous woes

The reality is that there wasn't much of a panic. Unlike with SCO v. IBM, at least I remember fairly little talk of this patent waving in the FOSS ranks. Not just Red Hat and Canonical were unfazed by the situation: several other vendors of FOSS as well as proprietary software seemed to care little about the deal between Microsoft and Novell. The original article mentions Sun's Solaris, but the fact is that even after Oracle bought Sun, Solaris stayed on Gnome 2.x until 2018. Another high profile distribution, gOS, was released in 2007 - one year after Microsoft's patent claims. It was used in cheap netbooks sold by Walmart, among others. Though running Enlightenment, it featured a decidedly Windows-like start menu. In short, neither the FOSS- nor the corporate world seemed very scared.

If Microsoft had wanted to strike against, say, Red Hat, they had the ability to do so long before 2006. Early versions of the distribution featured a blatant Windows 95 ripoff called Fvwm95, sporting exact copies of the window decorations, start menu, task bar and system tray. Later Red Hat releases (though still as early as 1998) came with the Gnome 1 desktop, as Windows-like as any other at the time.

In 1998, internal Microsoft PM:s (later known as the Halloween documents) were leaked and published by Eric S. Raymond. In them, various strategies in combating open source software are discussed. One of them mentions KDE, another the possible legal use of software patents. If anyone was supposed to be running scared and backtrack their decisions regarding desktop environments, this would have been a good time: The Halloween documents - as opposed to the 2006 patent claims - did cause a fair amount of hubbub in the FOSS world. Despite this, neither overhauls of KDE and Gnome nor their exclusion from major distributions materialized.

Oh and for the record, Kubuntu was at the time of the relevant events certainly official. Apart from being a registered trademark of Canonical, it also received Canonical funding until at least 2012.

What Really Happened?

The developers have apparently decided that it's "too complicated" to actually do real work on your desktop, and have decided to make it really annoying to do.
- Linus Torvalds on Gnome 3 (2011)

Claim: SUSE, Red Hat, Debian, Ubuntu, even Sun Solaris used GNOME 2. Everyone liked GNOME 2. Then Microsoft rattled its sabre, and the FOSS UNIX world splintered in all directions.

Well, at least a lot of people liked Gnome 2. Apparently not everyone, so the developers set out to create their vision of the modern desktop.

Gnome 3 was announced in 2008, quite some time after the supposed patent scare. Little, if any, of the discussion surrounding it seems to have had anything to do with GUI patents. Instead, developers and users vented their opinions on general UI concepts, the (alleged) stagnant nature of Gnome 2 and its human interface guidelines, and the desktop paradigm and its continued role in computing. Between the release of Gnome 2 and Gnome 3, a lot of things had happened: The iPhone and iPad, the proliferation of the Linux kernel in Android phones, and the popularization of "Web 2.0" and cloud apps.

In 2011 - almost five years after Microsoft's patent remarks and three years after its announcement - Gnome 3 was finally released. Perhaps inspired by the touch paradigm and certainly affected by years of heated debate, it turned out to be something that a great deal of people didn't enjoy using. However, the claim that this was because of a patent scare should, given the above discussion, appear as dubious at best. Instead, I think the the path staked out by Gnome 3 is better understood as part of a greater movement in the entire software world, as made evident by the equally controversial release of Windows 8 in 2012.

It wasn't until after this revelation that desktops such as MATE, Cinnamon and Budgie, all of them eschewing Gnome Shell for a more traditional Gnome 2-like approach to the desktop, were created. Hence, if any single event is to be blamed for "splintering" the FOSS desktop, it should perhaps be the release of Gnome 3 - not some purported GUI patent waving five years earlier.

But pinning the blame solely on Gnome 3 would be dishonest. This would maybe hold true if the Linux desktop was converging to a greater extent before the release of Gnome 3 than after it - but it wasn't. Gnome 2 was very popular (as is Gnome 40+ nowadays), but KDE also had a sizeable fan base and while the two desktops may have shared many concepts with Windows 95, they were (and are still) diverging not only in the way they're used but also in what applications they come with and, more importantly, the foundational GUI toolkits they're built on.

Then as now, many Linux and *BSD users opt for completely different desktop and GUI experiences. As previously stated, a plethora of smaller desktop environments were and are available, as is the option to not run a desktop at all. If this option was to be removed, I'd probably abandon Linux for something else.

Thus, when it comes to splintering and diversification, leave it to the FOSS world itself - spearheaded by grumpy, opinionated gits like yours truly! Though it can at times be exceptionally frustrating, I personally prefer this freedom of choice over streamlined conformity.

Speaking of conformity - SUSE, Red Hat/Fedora, Debian, Ubuntu and even Oracle Solaris are presently running current versions of Gnome as the default desktop.

Seems pretty convergent to me.


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