Why Did GNUstep Never Really Take Off?

About a month ago, I considered the factors that were holding back one open source project with much potential, Parrot. Today I will do the same for another open source project: . Mac OS X knows the inherent power and quality of this API. It was designed extremely well, successfully taking into account OO principles long before other mainstream platforms got around to it. Even now, many years after it originally appeared on the scene, it has very few rivals.

As the GNUstep homepage states, “GNUstep is a cross-platform, object-oriented framework for desktop application development. Based on the OpenStep specification originally created by NeXT (now Apple), GNUstep enables developers to rapidly build sophisticated software by employing a large library of reusable software components.”

Anyone who has used NeXTSTEP, OPENSTEP or what’s more surprising is how little the core API has changed. A NeXTSTEP developer straight from the early 1990′s would feel right at home developing software for a recent release of Mac OS X. And as we’ve seen with Mac OS X, it’s a framework that allows for some truly remarkable applications to be developed with relative ease.

So one would think that GNUstep, an open source implementation of such a framework for Linux, *BSD, Windows and other systems, would be quite popular. But that apparently isn’t what has happened.

Some people might blame the relative obscurity of Objective-C for this lack of widespread popularity. I’m skeptical of this claim. Objective-C is part of the reason that the framework can be so inherently powerful. Furthermore, Objective-C is just not a difficult language to learn. Most developers these days have some OO knowledge, whether they’re coming from C++, Java, C#, Python, Ruby, Perl or even PHP. They should be able to readily pick up Objective-C, likely within a week. So I don’t think Objective-C is the problem.

I also don’t think it’s a problem with the GNUstep implementation. There are some very talented people working on it, and they’ve done a great job. New releases are made rather frequently. And unlike Parrot, where we see lots of change but very little forward progress, each new GNUstep release does bring actual improvements.

One of the main reasons for its lack of popularity is that it never really meshed well with the other, more popular, open source desktop systems. In some ways, that is understandable. GNUstep has its own paradigm, and its concepts are sometimes at odds with what other desktops, like GNOME and KDE, offer. Somebody wishing to make use of GNUstep applications within the context of their KDE or GNOME installation will face a near-complete lack of integration. The problem is even more pronounced on Windows. Since GNUstep-based replacements aren’t yet available for most major types of software, such as web browsers and office suites, at least some integration with existing desktops would be necessary.

The default appearance of GNUstep is an interesting issue to consider. It clearly draws quite heavily from NeXTSTEP. On one hand, this brings a lot of power. The NeXTSTEP-style vertical menus, for instance, prove to be quite efficient. The sizing and layout of toolbar buttons is another area where the NeXTSTEP way brings efficiency. Unfortunately, such things also differ quite significantly from how other desktops work. So on one hand, you want to keep the features inspired by NeXTSTEP, because they do bring many advantages. But they also bring disadvantages, namely because they mesh quite poorly with non-GNUstep X applications. Although there is theming support available, it may not be well-known or accessible to new GNUstep users.

Another major reason for GNUstep’s relative obscurity is the lack of any coherent system specifically built around and upon it. That’s not to say that there haven’t been efforts towards putting together such a system. One notable example of this was Simply GNUstep. It even managed to get some publicity. But in the end, it faltered. I suspect this happened due to a lack of resources, namely in terms of manpower.

GNUstep and GNUstep-related packages are readily available for a variety of Linux distributions and the *BSD projects. So unlike in the past, it should be far easier for a typical user to get GNUstep, and GNUstep-based applications, installed and running on their systems. And we do see interesting work being built upon GNUstep.

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2 Responses to “Why Did GNUstep Never Really Take Off?”

  1. Paul says:

    While knowing Objective-C would probably be helpful, there are also Java and Ruby language bindings to GNUstep.

    Many developers are focusing on web-based applications. Where are three good WSWeb sites that can show the power and capability of the tool?

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