The free software movement, which in many respects means the Linux operating system, is a puzzle to those accustomed to paying for things. Software is expensive stuff — how good can the stuff be if it doesn't cost anything?
Actually, very, very good.
Free software people do not do much to uncomplicate this. They have a phrase — “free as in beer” — that is supposed to make some kind of point but doesn't. Their notion is that free of cost is not really free, that “free” means something else. I'll leave them to it because for most of us, “free” means you don't have to fork over any money to have it.
Not many years ago, it didn't matter much one way or the other, because joining the Linux world required a degree of commitment that other computer operating systems didn't. Getting it installed was an arcane art, and the applications themselves were specialized and difficult, with a lack of commonality in user interface — mastery of one application gave one no advantage in the use of any other.
In due course, companies were formed to produce “distributions,” collections of the Linux operating system plus various applications and a choice of graphical interfaces that were little more than colorful menuing systems for the same old batch of peculiar though powerful application software packages. Because of the distributions, it was now a little easier to install — I accent “a little” — but running Linux still involved a degree of commitment few were willing to make. Often, for instance, if one wanted a particular application, he had to download the source code and compile it himself (usually spending an evening traipsing around the Internet collecting the associated libraries, programs, and system upgrades before it would build completely and correctly). And an integrated desktop in which programs acted pretty much the same was still a vague dream, despite a few commercial attempts to bring one about.
Then, in July 1998, the desktop problem started to be solved. That's when KDE 1.0 was released. I downloaded, compiled, and installed it that very first day, and it blew me away. Linux was now easy to use, sort of. KDE (which stood for the “KDE Desktop Environment,” in that self-referential Linux way) could do things in version 1.0 more than a decade ago that only the latest Windows can do. (Such as tiling open applications on the desktop, which seems to be the chief advertising and selling point of Windows 7, though it would sell even better if they called it “Windows NV,” for “Not Vista.”)
A few years later, the issues of installation and configuration of a Linux system all but disappeared with the arrival of a distribution called Ubuntu. Users could download a CD image and burn it and have a complete Linux system which they could boot from on the CD itself, having no effect on the contents of their hard drive. They could run it and its applications from the CD. If they liked it, by clicking a button they could install it onto their hard drives, where it ran more quickly and where they could at boot time take their pick between Linux and any other operating system they might have installed.
That ease of use has gotten easier and easier. I believe that just about anyone can now install and configure a Linux system on any fairly modern PC-architecture computer. With just a little practice and a very small learning curve, I think just about any user would find that Linux is better — for a lot of reasons — than the commercialy available operating systems.
There are variants of Ubuntu which include Kubuntu, a version that comes with KDE as its default graphical desktop. There are “remixes” optimized for use on the small, popular netbook computers and for other purposes. It's an exciting system and it is free, as in you don't have to pay for it. You may download it and make copies for all your friends. You do not have to register it. And it comes with loads of application software, such as the excellent OpenOffice office suite, the GIMP graphics application, and literally hundreds of others. It even automatically notifies you of updates — and not in the irritating way at least one commercial operating system does.
But as Linux has become truly accessible, KDE has in my estimation taken a step in another direction — and not a good one.
For close to a decade, KDE grew in power and complexity without becoming any more difficult to use. A user upgrading to a new version had few problems getting right to work with the upgraded desktop. It was familiar and it was good.
One perennial problem with free software is that, because they give it away, developers have no real reason to pursue a user base. This enables them to develop what they want in the way they want to develop it. KDE was never entirely immune to this problem (well, a problem from the user's point of view, anyway); I'm still cranky that almost 10 years ago the wonderfully simple addressbook of the excellent KMail email program was replaced by a complicated thing that was difficult to edit and which has never in my experience worked perfectly. Free software developers are not free of the siren song of “feature creap,” the phenomenon whereby developers add things not because they should but instead because they can.
KDE developed smoothly and well, I think, through version 3.5. Then the KDE community did something that strikes terror in the user for whom a computer is more than a toy: they announced they were developing KDE version 4 “starting with a blank piece of paper.”
In January 2008, a few days more than a year after the release of a commercial operating system that became notorious and that also ruined a blank piece of paper, KDE 4.0 was made public. There was a noticeable outcry among users — even Linus Torvalds, the founder and namesake of Linux, called it “a half-baked release… . a mismatch from KDE 3 to KDE 4.0. The desktop was not as functional and it was just a bad experience for me.” Developers quickly said that KDE 4.0 in many ways was a beta release.
It seemed indeed to be a kind of proof of concept, though the concept itself was not easily identifiable. Now, more than two years later, they're up to KDE 4.4 and the concept remains elusive to me. I spent last weekend with it — entirely by accident and, fortunately, on only one computer — and if it does anything that wants doing any better than KDE 3.x did — even as well as KDE 3.x did — I was unable to find it.
There are some people, probably including persons who are neither KDE developers nor fanboy sycophants (though there are plenty of both of those), who like KDE 4.x. Good for them. I have no dispute with them. I just don't agree with them for my own computers.
A KDE spokesman wrote that KDE 4.0 was released at least in part because “it was what we needed to do to ensure that we didn't end up stagnating ourselves into irrelevance.” That to me means that they did it in order to be doing something. Again — fine, no objection.
What I do object to is the official abandonment by the KDE community and distributions that include KDE of the last of the 3-series versions, KDE 3.5.10. A user community was in some considerable part cast into the “irrelevence” that the developers themselves said they were seeking to avoid. “Free” ought to include some choice, especially if a user has invested years in a particular system and does not wish to learn another one.
I accidentally installed KDE 4.4 last week when I upgraded my Kubunto LTS (for long-term support, a version that is released every two years — the kind of release schedule businesses like) to the new one that came out at the end of April. For the first time, there was no KDE 3.x available. I'd given KDE 4.0 a spin when it came out and found it not so much feature-creepy as just plain creepy, an attribute it retains. My sense then and now is that KDE 4 was made by and for people who never use a computer to actually do anything. After a couple of days searching for some redeeming aspect of the thing, I reinstalled an earlier version which contains KDE 3.5.10.
Happily, all is not lost. I mentioned above the “remixes,” and therein lies hope and delight. A fellow named Timothy Pearson has undertaken (for several minor distribution upgrades now) to offer a remix that provides the KDE 3.5.10 desktop. Indeed, he has continued to develop KDE 3.5 and has talked of producing a 3.5.11 release. There seem to be enough users to justify what has to be a considerable amount of work.
It would be great to see others get behind his efforts. The stable, scrutable, productive classic KDE desktop has a lot to recommend it — certainly more than being different for difference's sake. I'm happy that the KDE 4.x developers and users feel relevant. Everyone should.
But KDE 4.x is sufficiently different from KDE as it had during its first decade come to be known and loved that I don't think they should have called it KDE at all. I think that “from the makers of KDE comes Atsiv (or whatever)” would let those who want to climb out onto that particular limb know the heritage of the new desktop without leading to the sense that KDE 4.x maintains the KDE tradition that is, sadly, absent.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.