According to Seigo, the large-scale changes that began two years ago with the release of KDE 4.0 are mostly complete now. “We’ve reached the stage with the 4.4 release that happened in January where we’ve got this nice feature set on the desktop and we have applications available for it and some nice refinements in the look and feel. That’s where we are. But where are we going? That’s always the difficult question. Once you’ve arrived at a place,what are you going to aim for?”
Seigo’s answer to his own question is that KDE is currently moving in three directions: adding functionality to the desktop in both small features and within specific applications, extending the concept of the social desktop, and the introduction of KDE on to every possible hardware platform. Each is a small story in itself.
Fine-tuning the KDE Desktop
In contrast to some of the earlier releases in the KDE 4 series, Seigo says, now “we have the features that people expect [and] we’ve given people a lot of new things they can do.” The next step, he says, is “putting an emphasis on fit and finish — working on performance, really ratcheting down the screws on stability.”
Something of this direction can already been seen in the current 4.4 release, with the addition of new features such as the ability to group many windows into tabs in a single one. However, tabbed windows are only the beginning, Seigo says.
He suggests that future releases will make the taskbar aware of tabbed windows, and allow users to save them for use in a latter session. Similarly, he sees the recently-added geolocation feature as a first step towards a KDE version that will automatically change the contents of the desktop according to where you are — for instance, opening one set of icons and files when the computer starts at your office, and another when it starts at home.
In addition, many of the changes to the desktop are occurring within specific applications. For example, KOffice has received funding from Nokia to develop a document viewer for the Maemo 5 mobile platform. Nokia,” Seigo says, “is investing a lot, not only so it’s fast, but also so it has import/export filters for Open Document and Microsoft Office format, so if you create a document in OpenOffice.org, it will work perfectly on your phone.”
Another example is the new direction for Krita, KOffice’s rasterized graphic program. For a long time, Seigo says, the sub-project wasn’t sure “If they were a drawing app, or maybe a photo retouching app, or what-the-hell were they?”
At a recent developers’ sprint, Krita enlisted design expert Peter Sikking, who has also worked with the GIMP, to help the sub-project find direction.
“At the end of this experience, they decided that what they really were was a natural process drawing application,” Seigo says — that is, an application that simulates as closely as possible such aspects as brush strokes and color-mixing. “Other things like photo editing are plugins now, something that you add afterwards.”
“The other exciting area of development right now is in business support,” Seigo says. “Things like groupware. KDE is working a program called OpenChange which is doing a compete reimplementation of MS Exchange,” Seigo says. “They were actually at the Samba conference this year, and I always refer to them as the Samba for Exchange. KDE is being ported to the new Akonadi framework [for personal information management], so in the not-too-distant future, you’ll be able to choose your server of choice, including Exchange. That’s really a first for us.”
KDE and the Social Desktop
The second major direction is the increased use of the social desktop. According to Seigo, this trend began with introduction of Nepomuk, the social semantic desktop that maintains a database of files and their tags.
“That’s reached the stage now where you can tag files, annotate them, search for them, and create a timeline to see the order in which you’ve used things in the file manager,” Seigo says. “That’s nice, but it’s really the tip of the iceberg. The end goal is to connect all this metadata with people and the way people work.”
KDE already includes widgets for keeping track of people via OpenDesktop.org and to access the KDE Knowledge Base, but future developments could see tools for keeping current with both friends and KDE contributions, and even seeking answers to hardware problems from others who own the same hardware.
Seigo calls this trend “freeing the web from the web browser,” adding that “it’s a shame the web is stuck with the web browser.” In direct contrast to Google’s Chrome OS, which replaces the desktop with the browser, the goal of KDE is to distribute access to web resources throughout the existing desktop.
“That means using web technologies in our desktops,” Seigo explains. “It’s really erasing the boundaries between what is local and isn’t local, and, most importantly, in the spirit of free software, putting the control and the choice into the hands of the users.”
New Hardware Platforms and Their Influence
The largest current direction for KDE is the extension on to new platforms. KDE has already released Plasma Netbook, a netbook-specific interface that Seigo describes has “about 99% the same stuff under the hood” as the traditional desktop.
Now, KDE is expanding to other hardware platforms as well. “We’ve got mobile going right now,” Seigo adds. “We’re working on a mobile interface that is designed to be a phone/PDA-type interface. Our target platform is MeeGo, and we’re working on things such as the Jax10 device, which is Intel-based. We’re also working on a media center. So, at the end of the day, we’ll have this collection of shells that go from desktop to netbook/tablet to mobile.”
One result of this hardware integration that is already having an effect is the influence of netbooks and mobile devices on the traditional desktop. Screen size, available RAM and hard drive size all place limits on interface design, although the hardware distinctions between portable devices and workstations is starting to narrow.
Even so, differences remain. As an example, Seigo points out that a mouse is too precise a tool for a mobile device.
“This leads to things like having clickable widgets,” Seigo says. “so that if I have a list of things, I might be able to click it with my finger. And because we use the same technologies for the primary user interface, we now have clickable widgets o the desktop as well. We probably never would have invested the time in doing clickable widgets if we were just focusing on the desktop.”
Other Changes, and Lessons Learned
Other changes are happening that are external to the software. Realizing that KDE no longer referred only to a desktop, but to a community engaged in building related technologies, the project announced a rebranding last fall in the hopes of better reflecting what the project is about.
The near future should also see a change from SVN to Git for version control. Seigo anticipates that the greater accessibility of GIT will lower the barriers for contributors.
Some KDE projects like Amarok have already switched to Git, and, according to Seigo, “They’re moving at an amazing pace, and the main reason is that the number of contributors have gone up.” Seigo does expect “a week where everyone’s going, ‘What the hell am I doing?'” because KDE has over five millions lines of current code, and some 58 gigabytes of archives to transfer. But “hopefully, when we all move over, KDE development will go even faster.”
But, whatever changes are in store for KDE, Seigo suggests that they should occur with a minimum of problems. In particular, Seigo says that, because the KDE 4 series is designed to be more easily altered than previous release series, code bloat is less likely to be a problem, because fewer kludges are needed to work around hard-coded limitations.
Moreover, “in cases where there is bloat, we disable it at run time if your battery starts to run out or if your machine is too slow. You give up some of the bling, but you still have a fully functional, good system.”
Seigo does express some concern about another user revolt like the one that happened with KDE 4.0. However, he blames the revolt partly on distribution’s efforts to be the first with new software, and partly on inevitability.
“We have a very bad habit in free software in general that, whenever necessary development happens — something that has to be done — we’re not good at creating new products around that,” Seigo says. “We just say, ‘Here’s a new thing,’ and we throw it out and see how it goes. The distributions really need to get better with how they deal with such things, because upstream can’t realy stop and ossify our code. We need to do this every so many years, and the distributions have to learn to deal with it. And it’s not exclusively a KDE thing; we saw the same thing with PulseAudio”
And when will the KDE 5 series roll out? Seigo says that the version number might change to keep it in sync with that of the Qt toolkit, but that, otherwise, a new development series is unlikely.
“We’re maybe halfway through what we want to achieve with KDE 4,” Seigo says. “The frameworks that we have are not being fully utilized, and wwe’re not looking at things and saying, ‘Dang, I wish there was something we could do.’ We were really doing that with KDE 3, and we don’t have any of that on our plate right now. We’re kind of like a kid whose mother buys a shirt three sizes too big and tells him that he’ll grow into it — we still have lots of room for growth.”
In a few years, KDE 5 will probably happen, but Seigo predicts that the change would be more like the one between the KDE 2 and 3 series, and not nearly as radical as that between KDE 3 and 4. “I think we’ve probably got a good decade of development in the framework we have right now,” Seigo says.