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Beyond the desktop with KDE4

By   |  July 3, 2008

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.

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26 Responses to “Beyond the desktop with KDE4”

  1. Cyrwyn
    July 3rd, 2008 @ 10:10 pm

    Read my post on a 3_D GUI OS on my blog if you want ideas to redefine the desktop.

  2. revdjenk
    July 3rd, 2008 @ 10:15 pm

    Thank you Uwe!

    You have presented an argument that many may not have thought to be an issue with the design intent built into kd34 (ok, I didn’t think of that!) As someone who comes from the orderly “folders, subfolders, subsubfolders and, eventually, files” era I may have had difficulty with this idea, if it hadn’t been presented to me through Google’s gmail! This is exactly the process that they thought out…and I find it VERY useful…and it fits my ever increasing laziness!

    So I will continue to use 3.5.9 in my productive partition, while I familiarize myself further with these and other changes presented in kde4 in my “play” partition.

    Thanks again, Uwe!


  3. Sanders
    July 4th, 2008 @ 6:12 pm

    The screw as we know it was invented in the 5th century BC, I think it is time we modernize a perfectly working piece of kit based on a well understood metaphor just because is 2008.

    Come on people, wake up! there is nothing bad with the current desktop metaphor/concept, what is wrong is the massive clutter KDE 3.5 has in some areas, or the stupid over-simplicity of Gnome in others.

  4. fstephens
    July 4th, 2008 @ 7:22 pm

    Maybe so, but I think it’s like the push to get rid of the internal combustion engine-those of us who have spent 20-40 years learning it’s intricacies may take a while to adjust to the new paradigm.

  5. smerball
    July 5th, 2008 @ 3:53 am

    why do you keep saying “we”? “we” do not want plasmoidal widgetoids on our desktops. “we” do not agree what you think is better for us.
    this project should have been separate development and not the next version. it is so radically different that it should be offered separate from kde 3.5 not as a replacement. how about “we” stop all GNU/Linux development and rewrite the kernel to be more microsoft windows like because there are many who think it’s better for us.
    i have tried to be nice with my comments about kde4 but i can’t stand no more excuses or rationalizations in defense of kde4 because someone thinks it’s better for me. kde4 is a beautiful thing from a creative viewpoint and i would love to test it, play with it, etc, but i will not be coerced into using it. it is wrong to kill one version and rewrite a new version. this is the reason for all of the hostilities and if i see one more coercive attempt to shame me into using kde4 i’m gonna get downright nasty.

  6. Boycott Novell
    July 5th, 2008 @ 7:48 am
  7. tracyanne
    July 5th, 2008 @ 10:33 am

    My problem with KDE 4 (I’m currently running Beta 2 of the 4.1 release), that there is no new functionality. All the functionality that is currently available in KDE 3 is there, I can do all the things with windows that i can do in KDE 3.5.9.

    The problem is I was lead to believe, by various KDE 4 devs blogs that I could do some really exciting things with KDE 4, None of that functionality is there, it’s basically 3.5.9 with glossier graphics and these giant Icon things they call plasmoids, but do anything with those Icon things… no way, they just sit there taking up desktop space, until you remove them. Yeah you can move them around and make them bigger.. big deal.

    Then there’s the task bar at the bottom it’s too big, it’s not resizable and it’s not hide able. getting icons onto it is fraught, and the functionality is so limited it’s virtually useless.

    Then there’s this thing where can zoom in and Zoom out, it’s available from the top RH corner of the desktop. Wow, that is so exciting, it will make the desktop wallpaper bigger and smaller.

    All in all I’m very disappointed with KDE4. I was expecting some exciting new functionality (based on the obviously overblown rhetoric emanating from KDE devs), and all I’ve got so far in an unusable desktop environment.

    KDE 4.1 Beta 2 is obviously not Beta material, at best I’d place it as Alpha.

  8. anaheiw
    July 5th, 2008 @ 2:46 pm

    This is something that gets repeated over and over and over and people still don’t get it. The traditional desktop metaphor will still be possible (and in fact much easier to implement – because of Plasma) for all the change resistant old farts who want it.

    Look at things like mobile devices – I have yet to see the traditional desktop metaphor there. Plasma is extremely malleable, which future proofs the KDE desktop by allowing a framework for creating fitting “desktop” interfaces for a wide range of different formfactors. Imagine an Ubuntu Netbook Remix implemented in Plasma, or that icon-y menu structure for cellphones, or a media center.

    The traditional desktop is flying out of the window as the One and Only True Way. There are increasingly many cases where the metaphor is grossly unsuited to the problem and inefficient. The author makes a crucial point there.

    But, to reiterate, because a few people are obviously frothing at the mouth right now, THE TRADITONAL DESKTOP IS STILL POSSIBLE (even being implemented).

  9. mk
    July 6th, 2008 @ 11:22 am

    A Journey sounds ok for me but please tell us it IS a journey but marking it as developer preview or something else. Not the point ZERO product.

  10. Jamboarder
    July 7th, 2008 @ 6:23 pm

    Oh good grief. This whole lot of brats have been behaving like ridiculously spoiled 3 year-olds whose parents provide anything they want, free of effort on their part, as long as they throw an obnoxious enough tantrum. You want a desktop *exactly* like KDE 3.5.x then *USE* KDE 3.5.x. Put up or shut up! You want some functionality you miss in 3.5.x, start contributing and stop bitching because bitching does NOT produce code.

    How do you spoiled brats think it works? Some people were missing the simple 3.5.x application menu, so some went beyond bitching and started writing a new plasmoid. Some people said they wanted the panel to match the system colors like in 3.5.x, so some went beyond bitching and wrote code which allows plasma themes to match system colors. I could go on and on and on. If you don’t have the coding skills, who do you think you’re going to motivate to write code on your behalf (i.e – WORK FOR NO PAY FROM YOU) by throwing these obnoxious tantrums?

    If you claim that KDE4 will never provide what you want then for goodness sake, move on. Use something you think will. Last I heard there are LOTS of choices. If you claim that KDE 4 is and will forever be technically incapable of providing 3.5.x functionality then you are ignorant. That is not an insult; it is a fact. Make a decision: Remain ignorant and pick another desktop that better suit you needs OR become informed, identify areas where your needs are not being met and contribute constructively by either writing code, triaging bugs to free up developers time, writing documentation to free up developers time or otherwise inspiring others to work on your behalf.

  11. Don
    July 9th, 2008 @ 9:48 pm

    A lot of people seem to assume that since KDE4 is no longer in beta that it is a finished product. I admit that I also expected more with its first release, but something many don’t realise is that a big portion of the code base had to be rewritten and KDE3 applications still need to be ported to KDE4 to make use of new functionality. Sometimes to take a step in the right direction you need to take two steps back.

    But I’m still excited about KDE4 and think the developers have done a great job :)

  12. Tectonic » KDE loses stalwart, Uwe Thiem
    July 14th, 2008 @ 9:06 am

    […] was the last time I had contact with Uwe. We were discussing his article on the KDE4 desktop that we published at the start of July. I had no idea that he was in poor […]

  13. Marc
    July 15th, 2008 @ 2:39 am

    Rest in peace.

  14. Linux Updates » Blog Archive » In Memory of Uwe Thiem
    July 19th, 2008 @ 11:07 am

    […] KDE development, which helped many people who have become regular contributors today, and was still writing about KDE last week. Aaron Seigo spoke for us all when he said “Uwe had a deep love for and belief in Africa and […]

  15. Edmund Humenberger
    July 22nd, 2008 @ 8:41 am

    1996 at LinuxKongress in Würzburg I proposed to Uwe Thiem and Matthias Ettrich the concept of “filtering of file-attributes” because I had the impression that folder and subfolder is no longer the right metapher for handling large number of files.

    I also suggested doing away with the “overlapping windows” of our windowmanagers, and
    instead using “tabs” and only fullscreen application with Oberon-like flexible screen realestate handling.

    It is obvious that nobody implemented my ideas in KDE1-3.

    Now 12 years later the whole world is moving slowly in my proposed direction.
    It needed the success of gmail with its tags (=atttributes) that led many developers to
    the conclusion that hierarchical file system is not the ultimate way to manage large number of files.

    It was the success of tabs within Firefox that made developers think about the power of tabs.

    In my quest to convince developers (I am not one myself) I had to learn that SW-developers are not receiptive to new UI concepts. SW developers (especially the OSS ones) are like most people. They love what they know, and they dislike change.
    Their argument is mostly a defense of what we already have like “its good enough what we have, at least it works for me. I can not imagine working with your proposed system”

    They are always rigth. It is a failiure of imagination.

    I also tried to convince the programmer of the new dolphin file manager to
    implement some of my concepts, I failed. He wanted a simple file manager following the
    traditional concepts.

    I met very few programmers which were receiptive to my UI concepts (Onne Gorter was one of them as he had the same thoughts himself. He went to Nokia)

    As I used to be a project manager for Warehouse Logistics Software, and I designed a new interface concept for the warehouseworkers, my programmers implemented all the concepts I suggested 1996.

    Now the dumb users find the needed information in 15 seconds within 2 million files (you guessed right, we do not use the concept of files or filesystem at all). We do not use the concept of overlapping windows. We do not use the concept of “SAVE” or “Open”, we mainly use the concept of filter. So I know that my concpets work.

    I am sorry that UWE Thiem is no longer here as he was a proponent of the “leaving behind the old concepts and lets move on to new ground” even when he didnt knew exactly what was there for him in the future. This is the essense of progress.

    I hope for the future that OSS programmers start to listen to non-programmers and let the “show me the code” attitiude behind, because only together (users, designers, programmers) can make the computer experience better for all of us.

    Payware programmers listen to users and designers because they are paid for doing so.

    Have a good day.

  16. Edmund Humenberger
    July 22nd, 2008 @ 8:56 am

    If you want to read about Onne Gorters ideas on filesystem interface, please read

    He also got a bad receiption from the KDE community.

  17. James
    July 23rd, 2008 @ 3:17 pm

    The screw as we know it was invented in the 5th century BC, I think it is time we modernize a perfectly working piece of kit based on a well understood metaphor just because is 2008.

    I would love to see this theoretical space-shuttle put together with nothing more recent than screws. Flying out to the new frontier in a craft built with arc welding and superglue, however, seems a bit more practical. :) Screws were never intended to address the addresses the general issue of “effective bonding and seals”, only that of “forcing two large pieces together via kinetics at low cost”. KDE4 aims to address its own general issue of “accessing your computer’s content and functionality” instead of the much more specific “emulation of a desktop because that’s already familiar to people” method. It’s taken us centuries of research to come up with the revolutionary polymers we have today, so we can probably give the KDE4 some more time.

  18. James
    July 23rd, 2008 @ 3:19 pm

    “address the addresses” – That should read as simply “address”.

  19. xyz
    July 23rd, 2008 @ 5:01 pm

    I really hope that KDE4 developers take the way to the old KDE3 development ideas (easy to use, configurable/customizable, fast). At the moment all the goodness of KDE3 was thrown away.

  20. Rambo Tribble
    July 23rd, 2008 @ 5:02 pm

    Yes, but one has to be careful in embracing the new because it is shiny and seems more attractive. I’m reminded of the story of the lowly hammer. About 4 decades ago someone decided that the wooden handle was archaic. They replaced it with a metal handle and rubber grip. The “wave of the future” eliminated broken handles, but created broken people; RSI’s were the result of poor shock absorption by the metal/rubber combination. Now, if you want a synthetic handle on your hammer, it’s fiberglass, but wood continues to offer advantages.

    Since long before the Dewey Decimal System human knowledge has been archived in hierarchical filing systems. It is probably conservative to state that sextillions of pieces of information are currently stored in such systems. Do we really do the user a service by limiting their need to understand these concepts? It’s much like turning loose a horde of drivers who don’t know what the brake pedal does; sure, traffic might move faster for a while, until it all comes crashing to a halt.

    To loosely quote Linus, “If you design an interface for idiots, you will have idiots for users.” And, in the end, even the idiots will lose from the accommodation.

  21. johnfordummies
    July 23rd, 2008 @ 5:58 pm

    My problem is not with change. Change I like. I had to deal with change moving from Windows to Linux 5 years ago. My problem is with KDE4 not being able to run on my laptop. Laptop is less than 6 months old, and came with Vista.

    I have XFCE, GNOME running in Ubuntu with Compiz effects cranked up. Runs fine.
    I have Windows Vista running Aero. Runs fine.
    I tried to run KDE4 and my machine came to a screeching halt. Could not even open up a terminal. Ctrl-Alt-Bkspc is your friend.

    I would love to try KDE4 when it’s “ready”, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to. Cut out the bloat and give the users something that is usable and they’ll flock to it.

  22. Alan
    July 23rd, 2008 @ 6:22 pm

    What’s missing from the argument is *how* KDE 4 addresses the brave new world of changing UI metaphors. From the developer/pro-KDE4 camp we keep hearing how the desktop metaphor is done, but I see no new metaphor being presented. Here’s a challenge to you folks: instead of calling people names, how about some proof-of-concept? How about some screenshots, or templates, or default configurations that demonstrate how plasma can improve the UI for a Multimedia workstation, PDA, UMPC, digital audio workstation, etc. etc. ?

    I’ve seen some pretty awesome proof-of-concept from other arenas when it comes to UI’s like the ZUI or semantic interfaces. So far I’ve not seen anything so compelling from KDE4. Is it possible? If so, why can’t someone demonstrate that?

    Evolution is about survival of the fittest. If you want the desktop to evolve, stop griping about how unfit the old model is and produce something MORE FIT.

  23. ikaruga3064
    July 28th, 2008 @ 4:45 pm

    I’m just a regular user and I’m confused by all this “philosophical” talk about the desktop. @UWE@ — just give us a real-world example of how KDE4 will help us be more productive. If I am reading your article correctly, KDE4 is moving towards the gmail system of one folder many tags? So basically, you are suggesting that I put all my files in one folder and tag them? I’m not passing judgment here — I’m just saying that if it’s so great, then show us how we can do that in KDE4…and how it makes your life easier.

    By the way, I don’t happen to have 200,000 files — in part I agree with @smerball@ — I have maybe 10,000 files and the file hierarchy system combined with a file indexer like beagle or swish-e works just fine for me. When things get out of hand I *throw away* and/or reorganize.

  24. A.Lizard
    July 30th, 2008 @ 11:01 am

    I’m not as pissed off as I was over KDE4 when I reviewed it for publication in the OpenSUSE11 version, after updating to 4.1 today, I discovered how to make icon application launchers not only install to the Taskbar but actually run, and I found out how to make drag and drop work on my desktop as well. (with issues, the Folder View don’t remember where it was put after a reboot.

    BY ACCIDENT AFTER A KDE4.1 CRASH IN KUBUNTU. I had to sudo to restart the desktop, so I discovered that the taskbar worked for a root user.

    The error messages when I rebooted told me the rest of what I needed to know. A few minutes spent changing permissions and suddenly, the taskbar worked. When I understood FolderView after some research, I got a semi-transparent window in which my icons and folders worked normally. So it all came together. But not to the point where I’m going to replace it on my Debian Lenny KDE3.5.9 workstation, luckily for me, I discovered the problems and the fixes on a Kubuntu-Hardy 8.04 VM in Sun Virtualbox. Otherwise I’d have to explain to my editor that my articles have been late because of KDE4.

    Kubuntu only crashed once today after the 4.1 update, so its stability is indeed improving.

    It took me a full working day to turn KDE4.1 into a usable desktop.

    I’ve got hundreds of thousands of files on my HD, so I’ll take all the help I can get in organizing things, and if the Semantic Desktop helps me, I’m all for it.

    The issues with KDE4/4.1 aren’t with a new desktop metaphor (which I haven’t seen any operational evidence of)… they’re the same old stability and usability issues you get with any other pre-alpha/alpha release. If they get fixed, KDE4.x just might wind up the best window manager around. However, one should NEVER have to go to the console to get basic GUI desktop functionality working.

    If the fanboy culture “This whole lot of brats have been behaving like ridiculously spoiled 3 year-olds” persuades the KDE dev team that it’s wonderfully perfect, people who do real work with our computers will have to look for something non-KDE when it’s finally obvious that KDE 3.5.9 just isn’t up to providing a modern working environment anymore and that KDE4 isn’t the answer. Some of us depend on our computers to make a living with, meaning if it’s packaged with a major distro release, it’s got to work at a basic level out of the box and not crash every few hours.

    Who told the distro packagers at Fedora, Ubuntu, and OpenSUSE that KDE4 was ready to go? Could these decsions possibly have been made based on KDE project announcements?

    Fanboy howls of “you don’t appreciate!!!” don’t help KDE4 become a usable product any more than the same howls from Microsoft astroturfers and fanboys help Vista become a usable product. And the defensiveness from the KDE developer team (yeah, I read the comments over at groklaw) isn’t really helpful, either. A product that delivers doesn’t need to be defended.

    If they want people to use their products, they have to make them usable, and they can’t promise what their software can’t deliver.

    That said, I’m a fairly happy KDE 3.5.9 user now, and I look forward to becoming a happy KDE4.2 or 4.3 user in the future, and being comfortable with recommending KDE4.x to newbies I don’t plan to perform personal end-user support for. All I want to see happen with KDE is for the team to get 4.2+ right.

  25. Tectonic » Best of 2008: The year’s top posts
    December 12th, 2008 @ 12:43 pm

    […] – Beyond the desktop with KDE4 (38 071 […]

  26. (required)
    January 19th, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

    KDE4.1 was installed on my work laptop (development and article writing) when I upgraded my Kubuntu. It was installed as the default upgrade (Intrepid), I didn’t choose it.
    I’ve used KDE on different distros because of its stability, user-friendliness, and vast amount of user level point-and-click settings. KDE 3.5 was rock solid and reliable, it had all the nice shortcuts to my applications, and the desktop was optimized for my needs.
    Now, if I dock the laptop, it doesn’t export to the external screen. It doesn’t recognize the external screen resolution, the task bar flickers or disappears, so does the K-menu and the desktop as well. My printer settings are all gone, bluetooth doesn’t work, and I can’t use my non-English, company standard keyboard to write curly braces or “at” signs. After poking around in the settings, these are back on KDE apps only, so they’re still unavailable on e.g. Mozilla and Java applications. I could continue the list for a while. The point is that my computer is no longer a usable, reliable tool, but a heap of obstacles and frustrations.

    Releasing a product that is still under development, however, disguised, as it’s no longer in beta, is what gives open source a bad name. We’re used to it from smaller projects, but to cripple a window manager like KDE is beyond me. Noone disputes that there’s a lot of work behind KDE 4, but it really should have been kept back from mass adaptation until it is at least capable of providing a steady screen without going black every five minutes.

    Today, after having fought KDE 4 for 2 months,I’ve installed Gnome. Guess what? While I ran away from it in the KDE 3 days, now it feels relieving and reassuring: it’s not flickering, it prints,and it even connects through blutetooth.

    I just wish KDE 4 would crawl back to its cave until it’s fully ripened for stable use. It has nice artwork though – at least that was done well.
    There ‘s no ex

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