by Rahul Sundaram
Fedora 9 will include KDE 4.0.3 by default, so this is a look at the progress of one of the major free desktop environments. KDE 4.0 was released January 11, 2008 after a couple of years of discussions and hype. The initial release was followed by a succession of minor releases that fixed many of the glaring bugs. The project that was initiated on October 14, 1996, so its developers have nearly a decade of experience now. While a lot of things have changed, there is still a familiar feel from its initial days. So what has changed?
The user interfaces changes are immediately visible uponlogin. The Oxygen theme introduces a new look and feel and adopts the freedesktop.org icon naming specification. The hot spot on the top right corner that looks like a golden cashew nut allows you to add widgets—called plasmoids–to your KDE desktop . With the ability to run Windows® Vista® and Mac OS desktop equivalents in the near future, plasmoids can be very attractive and functional. The picture frame plasmoid, for example, would fit very well into a home desktop. The ability to move plasmoids between the panel and desktop seamlessly is a bonus.
The new Kickoff menu is a bit unusual and takes time to get used to. There good features in there like the ability to search applications or mark favorites. However, switching between applications feels constrained since the menus are not cascading even though I have ample space on my high-resolution desktop.
The Fedora KDE team has backported functionality from KDE 4.1 that allows you to easily switch between the classic menu and Kickoff. Just use the context menu (right click on the K icon) to access this. The team also made available Konsole, a terminal application on the desktop context menu that can be used to drop to the command line easily.
KDE’s old control center was a amazing mix of tabs, settings, and more advanced settings that reminded me of a flight cockpit. I frequently got lost in the maze and needed the search to bail me out. The new system settings that replace it are a pleasure to use in comparison. Many feel that it most resembles the Mac OS X desktop.
While Compiz and Compiz fusion provide a lot of whiz-bang eye candy, the configuration utilities for them are difficult to use and there is not much integration with the desktop environment. Kwin has grown its own composing manager, as has Metacity, so for now it may be best to leave Compiz to prototype and experiment with new plugins.
Konqueror has been popular for a long time, partially because it can function as both a web browser and file manager. The user interface, however, is tuned towards neither. Dolphin is a simple and straight forward no-frills file manager. If you want something advanced, Konqueror is still there. There are rumors of a web browser equivalent to Dolphin in a future revision.
Okular is a new poppler-based document viewer that can display PDF, Postscript, DjVu, and CHM documents, as well as others. Dolphin and Okular are somewhat reminiscent of Nautilus and Evince in GNOME but KDE’s changes don’t end there. There are several other interesting additions to KDE’s renowned education suite and games. The marble desktop globe, for instance, is one of my new favorites.
KDE has always been a architecturally strong desktop and KDE 4 is no different. It brings in a slew of new frameworks including Solid, Phonon, Akonadi, and others. With Trolltech making QT available under the GPL license for Windows and Mac OS, KDE project has shown a great amount of interest in making its desktop and applications more cross-platform friendly. The move to Cmake has certainly helped with this. There is also much better integration with various freedesktop.org technologies including D-Bus–which has replaced DCOP and AT-SPI for better accessibility. These changes promise to produce better interoperability with other desktop environments like GNOME and Xfce, which are already using it extensively. One example would be the Dogtail project Solid, which works as a wrapper around HAL, NetworkManager, and BlueZ make handling removable devices a pleasure via the new device notification.
A long time ago, KDE adopted the conceptually advanced arts sound daemon with much fanfare. Later, the tool got stuck because the vital piece went unmaintained and KDE couldn’t drop it in order to maintain binary compatibility with previous minor revisions. Having learned the lessons from that experience, KDE now introduces Phonon as a multimedia framework. The interesting thing about Phonon is the ability to switch between multiple backends, providing KDE with a buffer. This is not the only advantage, however, as Phonon also provides simple programming interfaces that makes multimedia integration with other KDE applications a trivial affair. Though Xine is the only backend currently supported, Trolltech has adopted Phonon for QT in the recent 4.4 release and is working on a Gstreamer backend planned for KDE 4.1 Distributions can choose the backend (or backends) that make sense for them and users can switch when needed. Speaking of multimedia, it should be highlighted that Fedora 9 features better PulseAudio integration thanks to the work of Lennart Poettering–the primary hacker on PulseAudio (and Avahi)–and the Fedora KDE team.
Akonadi is a storage service that encapsulates a lot of knowledge that the KDE PIM team has gained over the years. Kmail and other PIM applications use it. It is a library that can be taken advantage of by applications within other desktop environment applications like Evolution.
Last but not least, QT (pronounced cute) is the underlying toolkit for the KDE desktop. The version 4.0 release iss a major factor behind KDE’s new release. Read about the many improvements.
To address the new changes–and a lack of technical documentation–the KDE project has launched a new initiative and website called techbase, which continues to add lots of information tailored for end users and developers.
Warts and all
The many interface changes bring their own set of problems. Icons and files on the desktop only have rudimentary support by design, yet there is no better replacement ready. You cannot drag and drop or copy paste files, nor can you use the context menu to open a file with a alternative program. When you delete icons from the desktop, they are not actually deleted but merely hidden for the current session and reappear on your next login. Panel widgets cannot be relocated within the panel easily. There is no way to remove the plasmoid handler from the desktop.
With the Oxygen theme, the difference between an active window and the passive windows are too subtle. We also need better integration upstream with PolicyKit, ConsoleKit, and PulseAudio, as well as other upcoming innovations. The list is long, though many of them are already reported and likely to be fixed for the next major revision, schedule for July. Fixes will also be made available for Fedora 9 users as a update following the KDE 4.0.4 release.
There is no doubt that the KDE project has benefited from the feedback of the early adopters in the community and that Fedora has committed to helping upstream with by being the first major distribution to take the bold step of making this version the default KDE desktop. This decision is in line with the stated objectives of progressing free and open source software.
Where do we go from here?
KDE 4 shows exciting potential but still has a long way to go. Those who remember the days of KDE or GNOME 2.0 won’t be disappointed at the current state. Today’s new audience might have different expectations, and it is unlikely the majority has the patience to deal with a major rewrite like this one. Even the Linux kernel has moved towards incremental progress over major rewrites in a development branch. The KDE project has taken a big risk, hoping to jump-start innovation. I hope they get it right. Along with the interesting acquisition of Trolltech by Nokia, the future is exciting and uncertain… and that’s just the way I like it.
I would like to thank the Fedora KDE special interest group for bringing KDE to Fedora users, especially Rex Dieter and Than Ngo for reviewing this article and Kevin Kofler for offering his technical input.
About the author
Rahul Sundaram is a long-time contributor to the Fedora Project and a former member of the first Fedora Board. He likes to dabble with, discuss, and write about new technology.