Widgets, the small utilities added to panels and desktops, are severely limited today. GNOME and Unity have banished all but the most basic system indicators, and even those on MATE and Cinnamon are mostly severely limited. The same is true for desktop effects, which are often no more than eye-candy.
KDE has its share of utilitarian widgets and eye-candy. However, its over 90 widgets and 48 desktop effects also include extremely practical tools.
In particular, exploring the widgets and effects reveals tools like virtual keyboards, mouse-trackers, desktop zooms, and magnifiers that make KDE much more accessible than it is usually given credit for. Other widgets include menu and task manager substitutes, other desktop effects, a screenshot utility, taskbar thumbnails and a tool for use with the window manager. Far from being extras or minor features, KDE's widgets and effects can alter a default installation in significant ways.
When KDE 4.0 was released, many users feared that it would have fewer configuration options than earlier versions. However, in subsequent releases, the missing configuration options were slowly added.
When I questioned experienced users about why they used KDE, the ability to customize was mentioned by almost everyone. In the aftermath of the user revolts, customization has become proof that a desktop is being designed for users, instead of to fit developer's design theories.
After users reacted strongly to new versions of KDE and GNOME and the introduction of Unity to Ubuntu, innovation has been limited in most desktops to incremental tweaks. The last six years have made KDE cautious, but, instead of avoiding major innovations altogether, the project has opted for slower introductions.
Features have been first implemented in Plasma Active, KDE's mobile interface, and only introduced into the main Plasma desktop after being tested in several releases. Similarly, the new FrameWork 5, which uses Qt 5, has been introduced a few components at a time over several releases.
As Aaron Seigo, Plasma's project lead, told me a couple of years ago, this approach "helps us introduce changes only when they're ready. We find that with the way we've been doing things in the last couple of years, even when we release big things, the response has been a lot more positive. As a community, we’re learning how to introduce changes better.”
In many ways, KDE's direction in the last six years has been the direct opposite of that most desktops are headed in. While KDE has never made a show of listening to users or of trying to include them in the development process, the project has consistently encouraged further options and customization.
As a result, users may not find that a default installation suits their needs, but adapting KDE to their work-habits is usually far easier than it would be in more desktops. KDE remains popular because it favors a generalist design that can be tweaked almost indefinitely.
At the same time, KDE has clearly learned from the initial reception of KDE 4.0, implementing policies and practices to help prevent a repetition. In doing so, it has managed the difficult task of turning the initial reception around, and achieving success where messy failure once seemed inevitable.
There is no better indication of this success than comparing the state of GNOME and KDE today. Where alternatives to GNOME have proliferated, discontent with KDE has generated only one alternative that registers less than a couple of percent on the user polls.
Similarly, GNOME's changes in approach, such as encouraging extensions, has reversed many of the initial objections to the current release series, but has apparently done little to encourage users to return to it. In comparison, the rising percentages of KDE users seem to indicate that supporters are returning to it. If so, then KDE offers lessons from which other major desktop projects could learn.