To most users, KDE 3 is obsolete, replaced two years ago by the KDE 4 series. Yet, many continue to lament the loss of KDE 3, and greeted enthusiastically the news earlier this year that a project called Trinity KDE had started in order "to keep the KDE 3.5 computing style alive, as well as polish off any rough edges that were present as of KDE 3.5.10."
Recently, I talked via email with Timothy Pearson about the project, its motivations, purposes, and plans.
A long time developer with Kubuntu, Ubuntu's KDE variant, Pearson describes himself as "an electrical engineer specializing in embedded systems and RF [Radio Frequency] by day, and an open source programmer by night."
Pearson first discovered free and open source software in 2001 as an alternative to Windows, but at first used it only for servers, judging the desktop as not ready for general use. Later, though, he discovered Kubuntu and KDE 3.5, "and was blown away by the powerful but user friendly interface, as well as the fast Debian packaging system. Shortly thereafter I replaced all my Red hat and Windows XP installations with Kubuntu, never looking back."
With such an attitude, Pearson was blindsided by the release of KDE 4.0 in January 2008.
"KDE 4 kind of snuck up on me," he writes. "I had assumed that the new software coming from KDE was going to be along the same lines as KDE 3.5. I tried using KDE 4 for a few days and just could not stand the interface; my productivity plummeted and I seriously considered going back to Windows. The only thing that kept me from doing that was the sheer expense of deploying Windows Server across multiple environments."
Pearson tried other desktops, "but nothing really satisfied my needs. This left me with one choice: to maintain KDE 3.5." That, in turn, forced Pearson into crash courses in assembling Debian packages and C++ applications development with the help of others in the Kubuntu community. Over the past two years, he has been maintaining KDE 3.5, and adding new features to the code base.
Asked why maintaining KDE 3.5 is worthwhile, Pearson replies, "KDE 3.5 is one of the very few desktop environments that offered a balance between speed and ease of use." By that, he means that it has something of the speed of the command line but is easier to use, and something of the convenience of interfaces like OS X but runs faster.
Pearson attributes this balance to the fact that "KDE 3.5 was built to emulate Windows XP, and therefore inherited that balanced interface."
To this base, Pearson continues, "The KDE developers then added a whole slew of new features that increased the power of the interface many fold, making an ideal environment for technical power users. Additionally, the desktop was fast, responsive, extremely configurable, and minimal enough that it was able to recede into the background when a different application was in use."
By contrast, Pearson characterizes the KDE 4 series as "closer to Mac OS X. It does not recede into the background willingly, and has lost much of the configurable that KDE 3.5 had.
"A perfect example of this is context menus and tree views; KDE 3.5 used these liberally and therefore a lot of very powerful functionality was available with one or two well-placed mouse clicks. KDE 4 apparently consider this confusing and/or cluttered, so instead the user has to wade through serial different dialogs before finally finding the option or task he or she was looking for."
As an example, Pearson cites changing desktop settings. "To change a desktop setting in KDE 3.5, right click anywhere on the desktop and click "Configure Desktop". Two mouse clicks. Under KDE4, you have to find and launch the System Settings application, then guess at the correct category for the desktop feature you want to configure, then finally you might be presented with the setting. In my experience, I was always choosing the wrong category, or the setting simply was not user-configurable like it was under KDE3.5."
Pearson notes that Trinity KDE has received mixed notices. "A lot of people absolutely love it," he says, "and a lot of people absolutely hate it. I have only had one person write to me and say he was in the middle, using both Trinity and KDE4."
One of the major criticisms of Pearson's efforts is that, like KDE 3.5, Trinity uses Qt3, a development framework that has since been replaced by Qt4. Pearson's response? "Yes, there are definite reasons to upgrade to Qt4. However, we don't need to throw the baby out with the bath water here; the old KDE3.5 interface can be left intact during that process.