Microsoft faked the moon landings!
Did Gnome, KDE, Xfce and everyone else originally copy Windows 95? Yes, of course they did. This is blindingly obvious and hardly worth writing an article about. Do we need to invent a silly conspiracy theory to explain the current 'fragmentation' of the Linux desktop? Not so much. Like most conspiracy theories, this one falls apart on close (or even cursory) examination:
- What did Microsoft claim when they made their dubious statment about 235 patents? From a random CNN article:
"But he does break down the total number allegedly violated - 235 - into categories. He says that the Linux kernel - the deepest layer of the free operating system, which interacts most directly with the computer hardware - violates 42 Microsoft patents. The Linux graphical user interfaces - essentially, the way design elements like menus and toolbars are set up - run afoul of another 65, he claims. The Open Office suite of programs, which is analogous to Microsoft Office, infringes 45 more. E-mail programs infringe 15, while other assorted FOSS programs allegedly transgress 68. "
So even if you throw away all Windows-style GUI elements completely, if MS is to be believed (hah!) that still leaves 170 patents they can supposedly sue your favourite Linux distribution over (and MS would presumably claim that even Unity infringes some of their 65 GUI patents, so you're probably still dealing with a couple of hundred). Redesigning the GUI doesn't make you substantially less 'liable' (if you actually buy into the MS FUD).
- If a Linux distribution switches to a new primary desktop, does that actually mean it's no longer 'infringing' the supposed GUI patents? Not really. 'Classic' modes that look suspiciously like Windows 95 are still available as lawyer bait, as are alternative 'traditional' desktops like Xfce in the distro's repository. The legal threat, if there is one, is no less than before. Incidentally, Redhat, which never signed a patent deal with MS, chose Gnome 2 as the default RHEL 6 desktop in 2010, 3 years after MS's posturing about the patents, and is still using it today, which ought to tell you something about exactly how seriously RH took the threats.
- Is there a more plausible explanation for the recent proliferation of DEs? Yes. Gnome developers got bored with the Win95 style GUI, thought they could do better, and were arrogant enough to ignore the wishes of a large proportion of their users by (partially) ditching the old interface. Canonical got upset by this, and re-purposed a netbook GUI as their primary desktop in a bid to differentiate Ubuntu from everyone else and make an interface that was equally irritating on a wide range of devices. All the other projects mentioned (MATE, Cinnamon, etc.) are simply attempts to restore sanity by returning to the Win95/Gnome 2 'metaphor' by one means or another. If Gnome had not deprecated the traditional GUI, nobody would have bothered forking or emulating Gnome 2. There's nothing about Unity and Gnome 3 that can't be explained by hubris, obsessing over tablets, and more or less misguided attempts to re-invent the wheel. MS itself has recently caught the same disease, but there seems little risk of anyone copying Windows 8. When someone (like Gnome!) pulls a stunt like this in the FLOSS world, the natural instinct is to fork or write something new, which is exactly what we've seen with MATE and the various attempts to tame Gnome 3 with alternate shells or addons. Projects then proliferate until natural selection kills the less viable alternatives off.
Software patents and threats of legal action have a lot to answer for, but fragmentation of Linux desktops? Yeah, maybe it was a 'controlled demolition', as the 911 conspiracy nuts say.