Each user is free to choose whichever desktop environment feels the best. The end result is that, if you use an all-kde or all-gnome system, the look and feel of the environment is very consistent; and your applications all interact between them pretty nicely. This just wasn't possible when we had apps written in a hodgepodge of different toolkits. The range of facilities provided by modern desktop environments under Linux also enable some other niceties, like component architectures (KDE has Kparts and GNOME uses the Bonobo component framework), which allow you to do things like having a live spreadsheet or chart inside a word processing document; global printing facilities, similar to the printing contexts found in Windows; or scripting languages, which let more advanced users write programs to glue applications together and have them interact and cooperate in interesting ways.
Under the Unix concept of "desktop environment", you can have programs from one environment running in another. I could conceivably use Konqueror within GNOME, or Gnumeric under KDE. They're just programs, after all. Of course the whole idea of a desktop environment is consistency, so it makes sense to stick to apps that were designed for your particular environment; but if you're willing to cope with an app that looks "out of place" and doesn't interact with the rest of your environment, you are completely free to do so.
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Created 1996-2021 by Maxim Chirkov
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