KDE 4: The Komplete Desktop?

KDE 4 creator Matthias Ettrich, envisaged a Unix desktop with a common look and feel. KDE 4 has been released for over a year now, has it met this goal?

In the Linux world there are many opposing camps. In the editor realm it is Emacs vs Vi and in the package world it’s Deb vs RPM. Then there’s plain old binary vs source, but in the desktop arena it’s predominantly GNOME vs KDE. It’s a fairly even split between major Linux distributions, although most do support both. GNOME has enjoyed increasing popularity of late with both Ubuntu and SUSE opting to use it as their default. Other distros however, remain steadfast supporters of the other side of the fence.

KDE stands for the K Desktop Environment and was first released in 1998 by Matthias Ettrich, who was a student at the time. Ettrich saw a need for the Unix world to have a unified desktop environment which had a consistent look and feel, rather than just multiple applications looking and behaving however they wanted to. When it was originally conceived, KDE was written in C++ using the Qt toolkit for its graphical interface and to this day, remains true to its heritage.

Now in its 11th year, KDE has come a long way in a short amount of time and recently celebrated the release of version 4.0, marking a turning point in the development of the project. The major reason for the major update was the implementation of Qt 4, which resulted in a complete rewrite of the project. KDE 4.0 stable was released in January 2008 with much fanfare, with the project announcing: “This significant release marks both the end of the long and intensive development cycle leading up to KDE 4.0 and the beginning of the KDE 4 era.” Unfortunately, this new era was met with great disappointment.

The release, although pronounced as stable, had no-where near the amount of usability expected by the community. The KDE team was quick to point out that the release was intended for developers only, as a technology preview of things to come, rather than as a desktop for every day users. Was it the fault of the project for calling a product stable when it wasn’t? Or a fault of the distributions for misunderstanding the intention and packaging it for prime time? The topic is still hotly debated among the free software world, many of whom find it hard to forgive the project for releasing such beta-quality software.

Part of the reason for the numerous bugs and usability problems was a result of the KDE team taking the opportunity to introduce some great new features into the desktop. The first major piece of technology was Plasma, the new desktop shell which replaces the Kdesktop and the start menu from KDE 3.5 series, Kicker. This is one of the biggest overhauls which has occurred in the new version as it has redefined what the desktop should be.

Plasma has enabled fancy new features like plasmoids (applets) and 3D desktop effects. Another major feature is Phonon, which is a new audio API for the desktop. It replaces the old sound system, aRts, and enables KDE to be independent of other frameworks such as the popular Gstreamer. Finally, the last major feature is Solid, a new device API which manages all hardware devices. It is a framework which is currently built on top of HAL, D-Bus, BlueZ (for bluetooth) and NetworkManager.

In the program sphere, all of KDE’s applications are being ported to the new libraries but some have also gone through major modifications. Konqueror, the all in one file and web browser from the 3.5 series, has been relegated to the web arena only, while a new program called Dolphin takes its place as the all powerful manager of files and commander of Kioslaves. Okular is a new program which was introduced as an all in one document viewer, to handle numerous formats such as CHM, DjVu, DVI, ODF, PDF, Postscript and XPS. It replaces KPDF and KGhostView.

It is now over a year since the initial KDE 4.0 release, with version 4.3 just around the corner. The current stable version is 4.2.3 which has a great many bug fixes and improvements. The software is now in a state where it is, well, usable! As a result, many distributions have now switched to this latest version and are phasing out the previous stable branch, version 3.5. If you’ve been hanging onto KDE 3.5 or want to test drive the latest innovations in the free software world, perhaps it’s time to kick up the package manager and give KDE 4 a run. There you should find exciting, high quality applications for all the tasks you perform every day.

So how does the new KDE stack up? Ettrich originally conceived of an environment which would all work the same way, with a common feel. Over a decade later, has this been achieved? Is it possible to have a completely KDE/Qt system which performs all tasks well? Or will you still need some of those pesky GTK applications? Let’s take a look.

Most Linux distributions will install a completely pre-configured KDE 4 system for you, simply by selecting the “KDE desktop” option at install time. From the desktop manager to the environment, everything should work as expected and if you’re used to the GNOME world, you might even be a little surprised!

The desktop is very different to anything else experienced in the Linux world, although users familiar with previous revisions of KDE will feel some comfort. All installed applications are available from the K-button in the task bar and broken down by category. Unlike GNOME, KDE includes most configuration options under a central control centre and there are lots and lots of things users can tweak. This is one of the main issues which separates GNOME and KDE projects. GNOME tries to keep things simple while KDE offers a plethora of options and puts more power in the hands of the user. Although he currently uses GNOME (due to his disappointment with the KDE 4.0 release), Linus Torvalds said: “This ‘users are idiots, and are confused by functionality’ mentality of GNOME is a disease. If you think your users are idiots, only idiots will use it. I don’t use GNOME, because in striving to be simple, it has long since reached the point where it simply doesn’t do what I need it to do. Please, just tell people to use KDE.”

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