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The GNOME Exodus and KDE

KDE is a mature desktop. So why aren't users who are fleeing Unity and the GNOME Shell considering it as an alternative?
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Over the last fourteen months, discontent with Unity and the GNOME 3 series of releases have sent GNOME users galloping in all directions in their search for alternatives. Xfce and Linux Mint's Cinnamon and Mate in particular have benefited from this search. However, one alternative that users have not considered to any extent is KDE.

Considering the years in which GNOME and KDE were considered the main desktop environments for Linux, this trend is surprising at first.

Yet the trend seems hard to deny. Compare the results of LinuxQuestion's Members Choice Awardswith the statistics from previous years, and you’ll see that GNOME 3's release cost the desktop as much as half its users.

However, the same comparison suggests that KDE is only at three-quarters of its pre-KDE 4 popularity.

The indication is that KDE has failed to benefit from the exodus from GNOME. Meanwhile, Xfce was three times as popular as the year before.

A possible explanation of this failure is that GNOME and KDE are such separate environments that trying KDE simply hasn't occurred to many disgruntled GNOME users. Both GNOME and KDE users sometimes believe hearsay about each other's choices that are either untrue or no longer true.

For example, GNOME users have been known to say that KDE is not designed for business, that it resembles Windows, or that it is more bloated than GNOME -- any one of which might discourage them from considering it as an alternative, regardless of how true the suggestion might actually be.

More practically, for years GNOME and KDE have had different design assumptions. While KDE focuses on customization options and applications that are as complete as possible, GNOME's guidelines have favored minimal applications designed for usability for the most common tasks. Both approaches have their advantages, but users habituated to one are probably unlikely to appreciate the other.

However, a recent Slashdot postingon the question of why people aren't using KDE hints only occasionally and indirectly at such concerns.

Instead, if you ignore the factually incorrect replies (like the one that suggests you need to use a mouse with KDE, and can't use keyboard shortcuts), the reasons mentioned fall into three main categories: technical concerns, a sense that KDE 4 is simply bizarre, and -- most commonly -- the conviction that KDE 4's changes were a betrayal of user expectations.

Comments on the Avoidance

The technical reasons for not using KDE are wide-ranging. The accusation that KDE is "bloated" is common. However, this is a common complaint when Linux users are asked why they dislike any software with more overhead than Vim. Even Xubuntu, Ubuntu's Xfce desktop, has sometimes been singled out by detractors as being bloated.

Since these complaints rarely get more specific than to say that the KDE 4 release series is sluggish on older machines, they may be based on hearsay as much as specific memory requirements. In many cases, accusations of code bloat are no more than an indication that the commenters prefer the minimal GUI provided by a window manager rather than a complete desktop environment.

Similarly, several commenters complained that KDE crashed on their systems. The crashes were undoubtedly due in some cases to the distribution as much as KDE, but KDE was the project that took the blame.

Other technical reasons are more accurate. At least one user complained about the default menu, which is confined to a single dialog box. Another stated that "KDE runs a load of crap in the background" without giving any details, although starting Krunner's System Activities window soon proves the comment has some basis. Still another commenter wondered why, with KMail, "I need an [My]SQL server running to read my email."

Many comments amount to a lack of comprehension of the changes introduced in the KDE 4 series to create architectural subsystems and extend the concept of the desktop.

"I also don't quite get the Activities and Plasma stuff," one commenter said, referring to the extension of the idea of virtual desktops and the interface subsystem. Even more strongly, another commenter stated, "I don't care if you're putting in place the building blocks for some super duper new GUI; I use my computers to get things done and don't like having a WTF? moment when I upgrade."

Another comment said:

It's just too weird . . . . It looks weird and doesn't work like I think. I can't really explain exactly what it is other than 'weird.' It feels confusing and hard to use.
If I could pick one example application that showcases the weirdness of KDE, it would be the Amarok [music player] app. Good grief that thing is bizarre. The UI is so funky and doesn't work anything like what I need. For me that app is a good reflection of KDE as a whole. Bizarre, ugly, and unintuitive. I can't get any work done in that."

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Tags: Linux, Linux desktop, Gnome, KDE

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