Novell has back down on a decision to end support for the KDE desktop on the Suse Linux distribution, following an outcry from users.

Early in November reports revealed that Novell was planning to make Gnome the default interface on Suse Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) and Novell Linux Desktop (NLD) lines. Suse has historically been closely linked with KDE, and has indeed given KDE its most significant exposure.

At the end of last week, however, Novell made an about-face on the issue. "All future enterprise-class Linux product releases, including Novell Linux Desktop, Suse Linux Enterprise Server and Novell Open Enterprise Server, will continue to ship with both the Gnome and KDE desktop environments," wrote PR manager Kevan Barney on Novell's PR blog.

Users will be given a choice of either interface, but by default Gnome will be installed, Barney said. He said the decision won't affect current customers, and that Novell will continue to invest in and support both Gnome and KDE.

The decision was made after "a lot of debate over the last few days in the media and on message boards", Barney stated.

The turmoil over Novell's decision to make Gnome the default desktop interface on Suse Linux appears to be connected with broader changes within Novell, according to industry observers. Several high-ranking Suse executives have left the company in recent months, most recently Suse co-founder Hubert Mantel, who resigned last week.

The situation is complicated by the fact that Novell is integrating both Suse and Ximian, which makes Gnome-based desktop software. The differences between Ximian and Suse appear to have created difficulties, according to industry observers. "There was always going to be a tension within the organisation," said RedMonk analyst James Governor.

The switch to Gnome and tensions with Ximian appeared to have influenced the decision of Mantel, Suse's chief kernel maintainer, to leave the company. "This is no longer the company I founded 13 years ago," Mantel wrote in a resignation email. "I'm very confident the Novell management will find a competent successor very quickly. After all, there are lots of extremely skilled people over there in the Ximian division."

The changes might not necessarily be bad news for Novell, said Governor. "It is probably better for Novell to get this sorted out sooner rather than later," he said.

The company has no option but to make its Suse acquisition work, according to some. "Some people have always said Novell should spit out Suse and go back to basics. But Novell couldn't go back to basics - that would mean heading inexorably towards irrelevance," said Governor.

Suse Linux is a major enterprise Linux distribution, and is the principal alternative to Red Hat, though it is far less profitable. Novell acquired the business in 2003 for $210 million.

Several other Suse executives have left Novell recently, including Novell Suse European channel executive Petra Heinrich in October and former Novell European area executive and former Suse President Richard Seibt in May, but Mantel was the first core member of the Suse engineering team to depart.

Earlier this month Novell announced it would cut its worldwide staff by 10 percent, or about 600 employees, but said the Linux development team was largely untouched. Novell is also selling its Celerant consulting group.