SunSoft, HP, IBM and USL announced CDE in June 1993 as a joint development within the Common Open Software Environment (COSE) initiative. The primary environment was based on HP's VUE (Visual User Environment), itself derived from the Motif Window Manager (mwm). IBM contributed its Common User Access model and Workplace Shell. Novell provided desktop manager components and scalable systems technologies from UNIX System V. Sun contributed its ToolTalk application interaction framework and a port of its DeskSet productivity tools, including mail and calendar clients, from its OpenWindows environment.
In March 1994 CDE became the responsibility of the "new OSF", a merger of the Open Software Foundation and Unix International; in September 1995, the merger of Motif and CDE into a single project, CDE/Motif, was announced. OSF became part of the newly formed Open Group in 1996.
Until about 2000, users of Unix desktops regarded CDE as the de facto standard, but at that time, free software desktop environments such as GNOME and KDE were quickly becoming mature, and became almost universal on the Linux platform, which already had a larger user base than most commercial Unices in total. Red Hat is the only Linux OS which has had CDE ported to it, although it has been phased out in favour of GNOME.
In 2001, Hewlett-Packard (HP-UX) and Sun (Solaris) announced that they would phase out CDE as the standard desktop on their workstations in favor of GNOME. However, in April 2003, HP reportedly opted to return to CDE, as GNOME had not stabilised sufficiently for their preference. Some regard GNOME's non-frozen APIs as HP's main issue with GNOME.
Solaris 10, released in early 2005, includes both CDE and the GNOME-based Java Desktop System. Future releases of Solaris will be based on the OpenSolaris open source project, which states that there is no plan to make the Solaris CDE "consolidation" (OS component) available as open source.
A petition exists asking The Open Group to release the source code of CDE and Motif under a free license. The Open Group released Motif in 2000 as OpenMotif under a "revenue sharing" license that does not fully meet either the open source or free software definitions. (The Open Group had wished to make it open source, but did not quite succeed in achieving this.)