KDE 4.1 Pushes Cross-Platform Support, UI

The free software Linux desktop KDE 4.1 advances the KDE Project's goals of cross-platform support and helps make the user interface more attractive. The KDE Project looked to Apple as an example of the importance of an attractive UI.

With the release of Version 4.1 of the KDE Linux desktop July 29, the KDE community made statements on several fronts, including advanced cross-platform support and overall improvements in the look and feel of the GUI.

In an interview with eWEEK, Adriaan de Groot, vice president of KDE e.V., the nonprofit organization that represents the KDE Project in legal and financial matters, said KDE 4.1 makes the move away from technology preview and toward being the worthy successor to the successful six-year run by KDE 3.

De Groot said KDE 4.1 advances the goal of having the free software desktop run across a host of operating systems.

"The .0 release was very limited and we're now getting over that," de Groot said. "The range of platforms has expanded again, where KDE 4.0 was basically a Linux-only desktop. For 4.1, we're realizing the cross-platform benefits that we had in mind for KDE 4, so it runs on free software operating systems like FreeBSD and OpenSolaris and also on proprietary systems like Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows. That's one of the reasons that it was important to get KDE 4.0 out relatively early: to mark a line in the sand and kick off the porting efforts for KDE 4. I know both the FreeBSD and OpenSolaris KDE communities had 4.1 in mind as a good target to make available on those platforms."

RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady supports de Groot's claim that KDE 4.0 was more of a starter for 4.1.

"KDE 4.1 is a significant release for the project, because 4.0 was controversial for some [with] its architectural breaks and some quality issues," O'Grady said. "In that respect, this is the Service Pack 1 equivalent to a Windows release. While I haven't installed it on my Kubuntu instance yet, 4.1 is generally getting positive reviews and seeing the kinds of reactions you'd expect from a follow-on update."

De Groot said the KDE community "recovered" from KDE 4.0 being released in a state that was really only suitable for developers.

"Seeing the reactions to KDE 4.0 has hammered home an important message to us as a whole, I think: It's not 2003 anymore and the number of users willing to use Linux and try new software has grown enormously," de Groot said. "The demographics of our users are different now. The message of 'stick with KDE 3 until KDE 4 matures enough for you' didn't get through loud enough; KDE 4.1 sends the message 'KDE 4 is mature enough for early adopter desktop users' and I think we'll be putting on the remaining polish to get it to casual users within the KDE 4.1 lifespan of about six months."

In addition, KDE 4.1 features improvements to the user interface. At the recent OSCON (O'Reilly Open Source Convention) held July 21 to 25, Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical, the maintainer of the Ubuntu Linux distribution, called on the community to help make the user experience of desktop Linux even "prettier" than that of Apple's Mac OS. Perhaps KDE is working toward that goal.

"Something else that stands out to me, and forgive me if it seems trivial, but the hovering icons in the startup screen have now had their reflections adjusted to appear all in the same 'mirror'-earlier versions had reflections floating around in strange places," de Groot said. "A tiny graphical change like that stands out because in general KDE 4 is so pretty to look at and so consistent-I know there's plenty of grumbling about the looks; all I can say is that I like them-that a small mistake stands out like that. I'd like to congratulate the artists on their attention to detail even in the face of tremendous work pressure."

O'Grady said he agreed with Shuttleworth's comments. "In a piece I wrote a few years back, I echoed Mark's belief that 'Pretty is a feature.' Obviously there must be substance behind the eye candy, but Apple's ability to wow via its pretty UI is certainly instructive."

However, O'Grady said, it's less clear "how those looks are achieved, and with what technologies. Many hold up Qt, the framework upon which KDE is built, as the answer because it's easier to design good-looking applications with it than with GTK [GIMP Tool Kit], its GNOME counterpart. But GNOME is more popular with enterprises and has a lead in adoption there, plus there are licensing issues, so it's a difficult question to answer."

Shuttleworth is a backer of GNOME, but apparently has recently had some good things to say about KDE.

De Groot said another barometer for him is the relative portability of the desktop. "For me on a free software operating system, KDE succeeds when it doesn't matter what OS is underneath, it just works regardless, and we're pretty darn close there."