Sunday, January 25, 2009

Give KDE4 a Chance

KDE4 has received a lot of flak from the OSS community because they took the policy of "release early, release often" really to heart. They released it extremely early: KDE 4.0 was barely an alpha in January 2008, when it was released. Old features didn't work properly or were simply gone, things looked marginally prettier without adding any functionality at all, and it was extremely unstable.

KDE 4.0 is unanimously a train-wreck as a product. If you needed a solid desktop environment, you ought to have stayed away from it. But the developers never pretended otherwise. They said from the get-go that anyone looking for a stable desktop environment were better off with their current ones, and that KDE 4.0 was still very much in active development. Releasing it out in the wild gave it exposure it wasn't having while the developers were working on it in on their own. The influx of bug reports, and the flurry of discussion have only strengthened KDE's featureset and codebase.

The KDE developers committed to a bugfix-release once every month, and a major point release once every 6 months. This is development at a fairly fast and steady clip, and with KDE 4.2 at the cusp of release in January 27th, I'm sure further refinements are on their way.

From my experience with KDE4, it is extremely pretty as desktop environments go, but not nearly as functional as either KDE 3.5.x or Gnome. Basic tasks like unzipping and zipping is not possible from contextual menus on the desktop, and the "K Menu" (analogous to the Windows Start Menu) was horrendously unusable (in fact, the new Windows Start Menu in Vista is quite excellent).

These are pretty fundamental problems with KDE4, but the groundwork is being laid for the future. KDE 4 will, some day, become a good product.

KDE4 is based on the Qt4 GUI framework from Trolltech. Developing on Qt4 basically means a single application can be ported for Windows and OS X with much ease. With the mobile version of Qt4 coming out, and Nokia adopting it for future smartphones (Nokia purchased Trolltech), it will also be portable to handheld devices.

This means it is on the verge of mass-market exposure (mass-market acceptance is another matter entirely). This is the first time that open-source software being developed for the Linux operating system will be usable by people in other operating systems at such a scale.

This would be comparable to Apple's "trojan horse" technique with the iPod + iTunes tie-in. People bought the iPod because it was a good product, and had to use iTunes to run it, and got an idea of how Apple's native OS X software operates. This drew attention to them, increased brand awareness, and created future clientele, as is evident from Apple's almost recession-proof sales data.

Some of the tools available from the K-world would be really handy in the Windows and OS X world. I would love to have the Konsole (KDE's command-line shell), for example, in OS X. in OS X 10.4 Tiger doesn't allow tabbing of console windows, which Konsole does. And the Windows (XP or Vista) cmd.exe is barely useable; I honestly dread to use it.

Konqueror is a very decent, light-weight web browser, and it handles the SFTP and SMB protocols very handily. Very useful for OS X users who don't want to use and look up the man page for "scp" ("secure copy", the command-line tool used for SFTP), or use the horrendous to navigate a directory, or for Windows users looking for a decent, no-frills, browser-like SFTP client (Firefox doesn't talk SFTP).

KDE has a lot to contribute to the software ecosystem. Profits-driven, proprietary solution-providers (like Microsoft and Apple) do not have it all covered, and this is where open source software's vital function comes in. Filling niche requirements in older systems where it doesn't make sense to pay for an upgrade, for what may not have been fundamental features at the time of release (like SFTP clients or tabbed console windows), but have become since. What's life without tabs?

In the meantime, Gnome or KDE 3.5.x are perfectly usable, mature, stable products for those of us who need a working desktop environment. From a consumer standpoint, it's always about using the best tool for the job. Until KDE 4 matures, it makes sense to just wait it out with whatever we're currently using (in my case, KDE 3.5).

KDE 3.5, by the way, is still being actively maintained. Bugs are being found and squashed, and it is a tremendously mature and stable desktop environment.

The story of KDE4 is like that of OS X. OS X 10.0 was unanimously a bad operating system. Slow, buggy, and unstable, most of the Mac community initially spurned it. Apple offered OS X 10.1 as a free upgrade to customers, but they didn't abandon it. They continued to refine it and upgrade it.

OS X 10.2 Jaguar was the first version of OS X that Apple charged for, and in my opinion was still terrible. The first version of OS X that worth its salt was OS X 10.3 Panther, after Exposé was introduced.

Since then, the price of OS X has remained the same, with three subsequent updates over the years. Each update delivered additional features, and under-the-hood enhancements, setting the groundwork for future enhancements.

Arguably, Microsoft is undergoing something similar with Windows Vista.

A transition from one system to another is a long and painful task. But it is most certainly worth it when it has become obvious the old system is merely creaking along.

One hopes the outcry from the open source community does not deter others from taking similarly bold courses of action.


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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)