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Solaris 2.5 to keep Open Look as its default graphical user interface, but will include CDE

By Michael O'Connell

August  1995
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SunSoft has decided not to select the Common Desktop Interface (CDE) as the default user interface in the forthcoming Solaris 2.5, as originally planned. Instead, CDE will ship with the OS, but Open Look will remain the default interface.

Despite the change in plans, Sun maintains CDE is "the strategic desktop of the future for SunSoft."

"We don't believe we're backing off at all," says Warren Hogg, product line manager for the Solaris desktop. "We're being extremely aggressive. We're offering CDE, but not mandating [its use]. OpenWindows has a considerable base. We want to provide an easy, smooth transition." With a minimum of effort, Solaris 2.5 users can switch their desktop to CDE when they so choose, and still run OpenWindows applications, in much the same way users today can run Motif applications with OpenWindows.

CDE's mission: Unix unity
Sun and AT&T developed the Open Look Graphical User Interface (GUI) specification in the late 1980s. It is distinguished from other user interfaces by its rounded buttons and unique "elevator"-style scrollbars, among other details. SunSoft calls its implementation of the Open Look specification OpenWindows.

Motif was considered Open Look's rival for the hearts and minds of users, and the GUI code of their applications. With Sun, by many measures the largest Unix vendor, promoting Open Look and other vendors flogging the more Microsoft Windows-like Motif, the resulting rift in the Unix community dismayed everyone, though not enough for Sun and Motif's backers settle their differences.

But by March 1993, everything changed. Microsoft's answer to client/server computing, Windows NT, loomed and the Unix vendors suddenly saw their diversity as a horrible weakness. At a hastily assembled press conference at Uniforum in San Francisco, the six largest Unix vendors agreed to set aside their differences and presented COSE, the Common Operating System Environment, which with minor variations is what vendors today call CDE. The X/Open standards organization controls the CDE specification.


After two years gestation, the replacement to Motif and Open Look debuted at April's scantily attended Uniforum in Dallas. Sun and other Unix vendors proclaimed their plans to include the new GUI in their latest operating systems.

Along with uniting the big Unix sellers (including Sun, Hewlett-Packard, IBM's RS/6000 division, and SCO) around a single GUI, CDE promises to fulfill COSE's mission of smoothing-over the differences between the Unixes, making it easier for developers to port applications from AIX to HP-UX, for example. Eventually, applications written for CDE will work across the major Unixes and minimize the need for hardware-specific code.

Users who adopt CDE will gain some niceties over OpenWindows, such as a style manager that lets users customize the look and feel of a desktop, and an easy-to-configure application manager that provides quick access to favorite applications.

But OpenWindows offers some functions, such as the snapshot utility, that CDE does not. While users can run their OpenWindows applications from CDE, these programs may not be able to take advantage of some of CDE's features, such as the application manager.

Learning from the past
Hogg says Sun's learned a lot from previous transitions with OpenWindows, and says customers should decide when to make the switch. Sun no doubt also wants to avoid a situation similar to the bumpy migration from SunOS 4.1.3 to Solaris 2.x, which prompted complaints from customers and developers. This time, it seems, Sun appears more sensitive to its installed base. "Just the littlest thing -- a button in a different location -- can cause you to stumble," Hogg says.

Hogg also notes that SunSoft will provide an unbundled version of CDE for Solaris 2.4 users soon, so they won't have to wait for Solaris 2.5's arrival this fall.

A cautious approach
"I'm not surprised or dismayed" Sun delayed deploying CDE as its default dashboard, says Philip Johnson, director of Unix and Advanced Operating Environments for IDC, a market research firm. He said it's a prudent decision for two reasons.

"First, it's still kind of early. Some performance issues may exist ... may need tuning. It makes sense to be cautious. Second, although moving to CDE is a small step for other [Unix vendors], Sun is going all the way from Open Look, not from Motif." The greater distinction between the two desktop interfaces creates some extra problems and magnifies others. For example, documentation for third-party software may presume users are staring at an Open Look GUI instead of CDE.

"I think Sun understands its users, understands there's a period of transition, and probably made the right decision," says Rand Schulman, vice president of marketing for TriTeal Corp. Today, TriTeal offers an enhanced version of CDE, the TriTeal Enterprise Desktop (TED), for a variety of Unix operating systems.

While Johnson doesn't quibble with the decision to stick with Open Look as the default interface for Solaris 2.5, he insists that the the next version of Sun's operating system had better make the switch: "The sooner the better."

"[Unix proponents] need to end the level of fragmentation between Unixes," Johnson says. "The biggest competitor facing Unix is Windows NT. When NT is positioned against Unix, Microsoft will say 'Look at all those versions of Unix.'" Once Unix offers a truly common look and feel and common API across platforms, differences among Unixes will be "no more different than differences between Win16 and Win32," Johnson says.

Eventually -- SunSoft won't say when -- CDE may become its default desktop environment. For now, however, SunSoft says it's happy to let customers pull CDE into their environments, rather than SunSoft try to push it in.

-- by Michael O'Connell

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