KDE 4: a New Dawn For The Linux Desktop?

With a new visual interface including new themes sounds and effects as well as a semantic file manager, speed and multimedia handling improvements, KDE 4 is a major release for the Linux desktop.

While many of KDE 4’s new features will be visible to end users, a lot of work has been done under the hood that will benefit developers too with new frameworks, including Phonon for multimedia, Plasma for desktop and panel interface and Strigi for search.

The sum total of all KDE 4’s improvements could well serve to help bolster its adoption against its Linux desktop rival GNOME as well as Microsoft’s Windows.

“KDE has in my opinion done something very good here, building foundations that are both very strong and very flexible,” Lars Knoll, vice president of engineering at Trolltech, told InternetNews.com. “They have tried to build KDE4 from the ground up and I am convinced that we will only see the full effect of having these foundations in a year or two from now.”

One of the defining elements of KDE is Trolltech’s Qt cross-platform application development framework. In KDE 4, KDE has moved from the older Qt 3.x series to the new Qt 4.x, which make a difference in many areas.

Trolltech’s Knoll is also very active in the KDE community and is well known as the architect behind KDE’s HTML rendering engine, KHTML. In Knoll’s view,
Qt4 offers a lot of new and advanced features KDE can make use of.

Among them is better API quality. Performance is also improved such that Qt 4 makes KDE 4 significantly faster than KDE 3.

Graphics support is also improved by way of Qt4, as is accessibility support and internationalization. Knoll noted that internationalization is extremely important for KDE as it is translated into more than 40 languages from all corners of the world.

“In total I’d say that Qt4 is a much stronger foundation for a desktop environment than Qt3 could ever be,” Knoll said.

Holger Dyroff, Vice President, product management of SUSE LINUX products for Novell, views the enhanced usability in many KDE applications such as the file manager and PDF reader as benefits for its users.

“As KDE 4 matures we anticipate the combination of the new PIM layer and semantic search facilities across the desktop to support us as we innovate on the Linux desktop,” Dyroff told InternetNews.com.

While KDE may well have been the first Linux desktop, lately it hasn’t been as widely adopted in commercial distributions as its rival GNOME. Both Red Hat Enterprise Linux Desktop and Novell’s SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop
(SLED) use the rival GNOME Linux desktop as the default.

“KDE is an option on SLED releases, but there is no default selection on openSUSE, where we offer GNOME, KDE, and other desktop environments like XFCE,” Novell’s Dyroff noted.

Similarly Red Hat’s Fedora has KDE as an option as does Ubuntu (though the KDE version of Ubuntu is called Kubuntu).

“KDE 4 is a major feature on the Linux landscape in 2008, and while KDE 4.0 is not yet ready for production enterprise use, Novell anticipates that the innovations driven by KDE 4 will improve future versions of SLED,” Dyroff said. “We will include the latest stable version of all open source projects that compose the relevant desktop landscape for our broad customer community. However, GNOME will stay as default for our SUSE Linux Enterprise products, due to adoption and support in the industry with partners, ISVs and customers.”

Trolltech’s Knoll noted that while KDE has a somewhat weak stand in commercial distributions and mindshare in the US, KDE does fare a lot better in Europe and in South America. Knoll also pointed out that recent OpenSuSE survey shows that 71 percent of their users are using KDE versus 21 percent GNOME. Plus, he noted, Mandriva Linux is mainly KDE based.

“So in total I do not feel that KDE lags in term of user adoption,” Knoll said. “It might lack in terms of mind share, especially in the U.S.”

But the battle for the Linux desktop is not about GNOME versus KDE, Knoll said. He argued that having both desktops has helped the Linux desktop environment overall and provided choice. Knoll added that can also run KDE applications on GNOME and vice versa, so they are not excluding each other.

“The real thing the Linux/open source community in general should be looking and focusing more on is competition with proprietary operating systems,”
Knoll argued. “Windows and Mac OS X have over 98 percent market share together, why should KDE and GNOME fight for the small piece of the cake they have instead of trying to get part of the huge pieces that Microsoft and Apple currently have.”

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