KDE 4 and the Dismal State of the Linux Desktop

There has been a lot of push over the past many years to get more Linux onto more desktops. That’s fine, as long as the pushers keep in mind that an Operating System is, fundamentally, a means and not an end. Similarly, desktop environments are neither the journey nor the destination—they are, at most, the steering wheel and the dashboard.

The car I drive these days is relatively new, but it has a steering wheel and dashboard similar to those in the Dodge Dart my mother drove back in the 60’s (and the cars that my grandparents and even great grandparents drove). A few things have changed over time, of course. The Dart certainly didn’t have a CD player and it was an automatic, not a stick like mine. The transmission controls may have been push-button on the Dart, but I don’t recall. The push-button automatic fad came and went. Still, if I got into that car today I would know how to drive it. I might take a few minutes to manually adjust the mirrors (no push-buttons for that), find the lights, move the seat, and check the brakes, but that’s stuff I do whenever I rent a contemporary car too.  It’s not learning how to operate the vehicle all over again.

The dashboard and steering column of the modern automobile may not be the optimum design, but they are both utilitarian and familiar. Every now and then a manufacturer introduces a small “improvement” which may be good and may stick around or may be silly and disappear after a few years. I like having the windshield wiper controls on a lever coming out from the steering column—that was a good idea and is common on many cars these days.  I still don’t understand the push-button transmission thing, however, and I’m glad it’s gone (assuming it is gone). One design change that I truly dislike in my car, however, is the “improvement” made to the turn signal control.  It tries to be “smart”, which means that the turn signals never stay on when I want them to stay on and never turn off when I want them to turn off and when I try to turn them off they signal the wrong way instead. That’s a bug, not a feature.

…and now that we’re on the subject of bugs wrapped in feature gift-wrap, we can talk about KDE 4.

I had really gotten used to KDE 3.5. It was utilitarian and familiar. It had features that I used, and several other features that I didn’t use but could comfortably ignore. It was simple enough that I could log in and drive it without having to worry about it enough.  It had enough bells, whistles, and adjustments that I could tune it to fit me.  Most of all, after using it for many years, I could ignore it because it just worked just the way I wanted.  The developers, however, got it into their heads that they had a “better way” that was so wonderful that no one in their right mind would complain about spending the time and effort necessary to relearn the desktop.  The result is KDE 4, which some have dubbed “KDE’s Vista”.

How many of you out there use a Dvorak keyboard? You do know, of course, that the fastest typists use the Dvorak layout because it’s so much better than the more-common Qwerty.  Ah… but you don’t actually use Dvorak because you learned on Qwerty.  Most people in the western world who type (even nominally) learned on some variant of the Qwerty keyboard.  How many Dvorak keyboards are there at your local computer store?  Imagine, if you will, what would happen if a major compute maker such as Dell decided to switch all of their laptops to Dvorak. It’s so much better, of course, that the customers wouldn’t mind spending the time learning to use it instead of getting their real work done.  Besides, it would be better for them in the long run.

I could wish such a thing on Dell.

Don’t get me wrong. Dvorak keyboards are arguably better than Querty, but the changes to KDE from 3.5 to 4.x—the changes that an end-user can see and will care about—are not actual improvements. They’re mostly just differences, and in many cases are are a major step backward. For instance, KDE 3.5 came with a PDF reader called kpdf. It was small, fast, and it worked. In KDE 4 kpdf is replaced by Okular. Okular is big, slow, and flaky. It also has a name so non-intuitive that I have to go look it up every time I want to whine about it. Okular is supposed to combine the functionality of kpdf, kfax, and several other tools but in doing so it sacrifices modularity. That’s silly, too, because the KDE desktop browser, Konqueror, used to provide the service of combining modular functionality into a single interface. Click on a PDF file, it would launch kpdf. Click on a FAX, it would load kfax.  The same would happen with icons on the desktop.

Ah… the desktop.  Forget it.  There is no desktop any more.  You now have plasma.  Instead of icons you get plasmids.  I hate plasmids.

Plasmids look like icons but they’re not really icons and they don’t work like icons so you think they should do one thing and they do another instead.  It’s very frustrating.

The worst aspect of the KDE 4 disaster, however, is the attitude that surrounds it. The tone of the KDE community’s defensiveness is condescending, in general claiming that those who complain are ignorant, uninformed, and “afraid of change”. Hrrmm… I don’t think so. I think that when I go to the tool box to get a hammer I want a hammer, not an elecro-pneumatic poly-armatured shoe-horn (the kind with teeth). Maybe I could whonk a nail into a board with an elecro-pneumatic poly-armatured shoe-horn (the kind with teeth), or maybe not, but I know how to use a hammer for that job.

The Ubuntu community has set up a repository that allows you to install KDE 3.5 instead of the KDE 4.x that ships with Kubuntu.  Other Linux distros may have similar setups.  There are also a lot of KDE users giving Gnome a try.  Unfortunately, hanging on to a dead-end branch of the KDE tree isn’t really a long-term solution, and Gnome (now that I have tried it myself) has too many limitations and quirks to make a Linux desktop compelling to power users.

Right now, KDE and Gnome are the two big-shots in the Linux desktop environment.  Both are disappointments, leaving the push for Linux on the Desktop to stumble over its own feet.

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