Beyond the desktop with KDE4
Lately, there has been quite some bitching on the fringes of the KDE project about KDE4 and the direction it takes. Some people go as far as saying: “Give us back our old desktop!” I beg to differ. The old desktop has served us well for thirty-odd years since its invention by Xerox. It is beyond its due date by now. We need something new that meets the reality we are living in now.
Let’s start with the sheer number of files we own. Twenty years ago, a user owned a couple of hundreds of files. The hierarchical filesystem with folders, subfolders, subsubfolders and, eventually, files was perfectly suitable to manage them. My last file count in my own home directory (no system files!) revealed that I own over 200 000 files. Even if you are extremely anal about organising your files, how can you manage this number with folders and subfolders? You can not! Period. We need a new way to organise our data so that “information at your fingertips” stays true.
Twenty years ago, a personal computer (of any make and operating system) was a glorified typewriter with the occasional game thrown in. If you were lucky (not in Namibia) you also had email and Internet access. The usual user was a technical person, a secretary, some journalists doing research on AOL and a gamer at home. Not so today. Desktop computing has changed a lot.
The personal computer has become a knowledge centre. Do you still have a printed encyclopedia? Probably not. You turn to Google or Wikipedia to look up stuff.
It has turned into an entertainment centre. Movies, music, most of the Internet, project Gutenberg. You name it. If you hire a DJ for a private or corporate function, s/he won’t turn up with turn tables or CD players anymore but with a laptop. Compare modern games with what we had 20 years ago.
The personal computer has become a multimedia centre. You can compose music with it, cut videos, create videos, create cartoons or just enjoy these arts forms. Your photos most probably don’t sit in some album but on you hard disk.
It became a communication centre. Email, instant messaging, Internet telephony, blogs, chat rooms, video conferencing – you name it. It has been years since I wrote a real letter. I rather use my computer.
There’s more, but let’s stop here. Our personal computers have turned into almost universal tools (they still cannot make decent tea or vacuum our bedrooms).
In KDE4 we will eventually have a “semantic desktop”. One that finds stuff for us. I want to type in something like: “I want granny Elsie’s photo that came in with an email from Joe.” My computer should present me with a short list of objects. I am not just talking about a search or find application. Every application must be able to do this. It is on its way in KDE4. It may still be some time before every application can do it, but the technology is there already. Maybe, the “Open” menu entry should change to “Find”.
Back to the desktop. What has cutting videos to do with a desktop? It is rather about a cutting room! Composing music is rather done at a piano than a desktop. I rather read a book (project Gutenberg) in an easy chair than at my desktop. A
DJ serving music to a crowd doesn’t work at a desktop.
While the old desktop still has its application in office work, there are many more uses of a personal computer where the paradigm “desktop” doesn’t apply at all.
There is another thing. More and more software is migrating from desktops and laptops to cellphones and other tiny devices with very small displays. So we are facing a completely new form factor for our software that doesn’t agree with the desktop paradigm at all.
KDE4 isn’t a finished product but a journey. We are at the very begin of it. I certainly do not know where it will lead us. Maybe, we need a whole bunch of new paradigms to replace the old desktop. The cutting room, the DJ’s workbench, the easy chair for reading books. Lots of others. The exciting thing about KDE4 is that plasma, the new “desktop”, makes all of this possible. It has been designed to be anything, the traditional desktop as well as anything else.
Again: We are at the begin of this journey. Not everything is available yet, but the technology to make it available is there. My kudos go to Aaron Seigo, lead developer of plasma, and all the others that try to make our personal computers usable again – not dismissing any of the possible usages.
Uwe Thiem is the organisational contact for KDE in Africa. He is also the author of KDE Application Development and KDE Programmierung. This commentary was originally published on the Informal Linux Group Namibia website. It is republished here with his permission.