KDE and the Vision Thing

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 4:16 PM

Just over a year ago, I wrote an article, “Why GNOME's Got it Right,” which outlined why I thought the GNOME Project was clearly the Free Software desktop project with the best vision of the future. KDE's Appeal Project, which has been brewing for some time now, looks to a different set of issues that need solving and has some very smart minds at work on solving those problems. In a few words, KDE's got some of “that vision thing” too.

Essentially, there are two basic needs, in my opinion, that GNU/Linux desktops need to provide, if we are to compete with Windows and Mac OS X. First, there must be intuitive simplicity, something I believe GNOME has been working quite hard on and is succeeding with. The second is to make the desktop look nice and be pleasant to work with.

These days, when the average computer comes with a GPU more powerful than the CPU's of some of the old computers I have laying around in my basement, people want their computers to look nice. While the practical need to get work done ought to come first, well thought out eye-candy can make work seem to flow better by helping to provide visual hints to what is going on, gloss over wait times and simply make staring at a screen less stark and jarring to the eyes. Apple has accomplished this with Mac OS X, most certainly, and it looks like Microsoft is hoping to do the same with Windows Vista (although, whether they will succeed is another point entirely).

While the discussion of whether KDE or GNOME looks more appealing is highly subjective, I think few will deny that KDE has almost always possessed the title of being the most eye-candy capable desktop. Having the most eye-candy is not what we want; however, it is having the most useful eye-candy. That is, special effects that aid in accomplishing tasks, not just ones that look flashy for the sake of flashiness. This is where I think the Appeal Project is showing vision — and the type of vision I hope GNOME eventually starts to share with KDE.

After years of mockups and hacks about what the X11 desktop could do, this KDE 4.0 focused project seems to be all about making it happen. Most particularly, the Plasma sub-project, led by the ever multi-talented Aaron Seigo, looks to be on the right track. The Plasma project is essentially trying to take the various panel and desktop tools and ideas that have floated around KDE and turn them into something new and better.

Accomplishing something entirely new, as the project's own site admits, is a difficult task given how many people have already worked on these ideas, but it looks like they are off to a good start. Particularly intriguing is the idea of “extenders,” which are small widgets — think along the lines of Apple's Dashboard widgets — that are torn off of an existing applet, such as the calendar applet loaded on the KDE panel.

Presuming the proof-of-concept can be turned into a reality, this is something that would not only look great, but also be really functional. Present widget technologies have a distinct problem: they show what the widget author wants you to see; extenders seem to reverse that trend by allowing the user to essentially make his or her own widget containing the information desired from compatible applications.

While the Plasma project, and other Appeal projects, such as the new Oxygen icon theme, Tenor desktop search framework and “Coolness” special effects projects, are all still in their infancy, the big thing to see is not so much what has already been done, but if there is a vision for something new and innovative. Innovation is something that the GNU/Linux desktop needs, and I think it seems clear that the Appeal project does have a vision for just that.

The focus on simplicity that GNOME has been concerning itself with is necessary to make the desktop accessible to new users, and I hope KDE will eventually follow GNOME's lead there. But, the ideas for creativity that the Appeal project are working with are necessary for something even more important: making users of other platforms want to use GNU/Linux desktops and do so, not so as to dodge worms or save money, but because it truly seems like the nicest way of accomplishing the tasks at hand. The idea that the day this occurs is near is, well, appealing.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. You can reach him at tbutler@ofb.biz.