Aaron Seigo is one of the most public faces of the KDE desktop. Not only is he a long-time developer, but, for the past three years, he has been president of KDE e.V., the German non-profit that handles the project’s financial and legal affairs.
He is also an articulate blogger and public speaker who combines thoughtfulness with brash outspokenness. This last weekend, I finally met him face to face at COSSFest in Calgary. Now nearing the end of his time as president, he talked about KDE’s recent past and near future, and his role in both.
Seigo is aware of his celebrity (or notoriety) in the free software community, but not altogether comfortable with it. “I’m not a huge believer in the cult of personality,” he said over a large bowl of vegetarian Pho. “You look at Apple: Steve Jobs goes away because of illness and stock prices go down. I don’t think that’s fair to the other people in Apple, who put their hearts and souls and lives into it. And that’s not really in the spirit of KDE. But that’s what you get with the cult of personality.”
At any rate, such celebrity is often misguided. Seigo insists, for instance, that his role of president is not nearly as important as many people imagine. “To the outside, the role matters,” he says. “But, really, it is just added responsibility, with no ability to dictate or anything of that nature. It’s not so much an empowerment of the individual as the individual serving the community and how to make sure that the community processes that need to be engaged actually do get engaged.”
Even the fact that he was president as well as a lead developer in the introduction of the KDE 4 series, he describes as an accident, although he admits that the coincidence “gives the odd appearance.”
As he looks forward to stepping down as president and refocusing on his development interests, Seigo is far more interested in talking about what has been accomplished during the last three years. He mentions the introduction of a code of conduct for interaction within the community and an upcoming membership drive for individuals. But what he is most pleased about is the increased transparency and the institutionalizing of developer sprints within the project.
“When I stepped in, the board people were very busy people,” he recalls. “They spent their time getting things done, as opposed to helping people understand what was getting done. And there was a certain decrease in interaction and trust that occurs when you do that.”
Consequently, when Seigo took office, “it was a stated policy that we wanted to increase transparency. So we did things like starting to publish publicly quarterly reports on our activities, and we were much more pro-active in communicating our goals, as well as our results in things such as finances, so there was more trust and transparency.”
Another change that Seigo is proud of is the institutionalizing of development sprints — events at which members of a sub-project meet for an intensive few days of interaction and work. “With refunds for travels and lodging, we hope to have the organization on the ground so that, when they arrive, things get done,” Seigo says. “And we also have accountability, so they have to return and give us a report.”
This report serves three purposes: to ensure that sprints are productive, to give participants some public credit (an important consideration throughout the free software community), and to inform the larger KDE community of what is happening.
According to Seigo, the development sprints have been a useful investment for the project. “We are holding them now about once a month for different projects, and it’s part of their budget. We track results, and it’s interesting: During the event, you’ll see an uptick in activity in the form of svn commits, and then there’s a long tail of anywhere from three to six months. Then it comes down to normal level, and there’ll be another one in the next year, or six months after the first one, and you get that uptick again.”
Remembering KDE 4’s Reception
2008 saw the introduction of KDE 4.0, a major overhaul of the popular desktop. For a complicated variety of reasons, the release was received with loud and often abusive hostility, which only abated when the 4.2 releases restored many of the customizing features of the KDE 3 series.
Asked whether the reception was challenging, Seigo replies, “Absolutely. Especially in the first half of the year. You release something that you’ve put so much of your passion into, so much of your heart, you work for two years — it was very disappointing. And then there was the level and unrelenting nature of it, and the people who really wanted things not to go well. There are, unfortunately, certain individuals out there who love a train wreck, and not just watching it, but pulling the switch.”
“For me, personally, it was a very difficult time, because I was standing out there, trying to shield certain individuals and projects.” As an example, he mentions Peter Penz, the developer of Dolphin, KDE’s new file manager, for whom the 4.0 release was his first introduction to the project. “It was a situation where you say something, and it may or may not be taken at face value, and you’re standing up for people who may or may not know what you’re doing. But that’s not why you’re doing it. You’re doing it to keep the project healthy and on track.”
Seigo defends the changes in KDE 4.0 as a necessary break with the past in order to compete in the future. Still, he says, there were times when he had second thoughts. “There were nights when I sat there on my way to sleep, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be better simply to appease the masses, even though it means we’re going to run into a brick wall?”
What helped him to persevere was the conviction that the change was necessary. “We couldn’t compete in 2010 with a foundation that we laid in 1995,” he says. “So we needed to do a thing that was very hard. People were going to be disappointed no matter what we did, and there was going to breakage in the meantime.”
“You can view any challenge as a problem or as an opportunity, right? It needs solving, but what matters is what you get out of it at the end,” Seigo says. “And I think we’ve come out of it much stronger as a community, with a much better sense of who we are and where we’re going. I’m proud of our marketing team and developers, and all of those who helped and got us through that period of time. It was not easy for anybody.”
Looking back, Seigo now thinks the controversy over KDE 4.0 holds some important lessons.
“I see people who are actually loving what we’ve accomplished now, and I think it’s worth the difficulty. I hope that the entire free software community can reflect upon this process. I don’t want to see innovation stumble and fall because it becomes too difficult. We need to allow innovation to occur without it coming at a huge cost.”
What’s new in KDE 4.3 and 4.4
Seigo is looking forward to the end of his presidency, so that he can focus on his development interests.
One of the projects he is especially interested in is what he calls “the non-locality of objects.” By that, he means the ability to transfer objects seamlessly from one device o another.
For example, “you’re having a meeting with a bunch of developers, and you have something that you want to show on your laptop. Today, it’s pretty hard. You have to hook up to a projector, and it’s a one person at a time thing. But it would be cool if you could take the folder that’s on your desktop that has all the documents in it and throw it on the white board. It would be cool if you could say, here’s a real time simulation I’m running or our numbers and then throw it on other people’s desktops.”
Similarly, you could get a timetable for trains from a kiosk while in the station, or transfer the controls for streaming media on your TV to your laptop.
Another project that Seigo wants to focus on more is to encourage the development of common interfaces on all devices as much as possible. “We should be able to move easily [between devices], without investing huge amounts of capital, and to be able to create interfaces for devices that work within the confines of their memory, their screen size, and how people use them.”
The current situation, in which interfaces are designed separately for each device, he calls “an unfortunate inefficiency. When you look at factory floor supply-chain management, it’s like the old days when, if you needed a bolt for Product A, you made the bolt on Product A’s line, and if you needed another bolt for Product B, you built another bolt on its line. These days, you make one bolt, and use it for both products. There’s an efficiency you gain. And we’re not doing that with software or the primary user interfaces. But a battery indicator is a battery indicator is a battery indicator.
“Why are we rewriting it for every device?”
According to Seigo, much of the background work for these two projects will appear in KDE 4.3, with the first working prototypes scheduled for 4.4.
However, Seigo is almost as interested in the other changes due in 4.3. Greater integration with the operating system, Bluetooth and smart card support, mouseover thumbnails on folders, a geo-locator, releases of digiKam, Amarok, and KOffice for the 4.x series, increased integration of Nepomuk, the semantic desktop layer into file dialogs — from the effortless way that he reels off the list of features and his enthusiasm about it, you can tell that these are efforts that he follows closely and with considerable passion.
I asked Seigo what might lie beyond 4.4, but he declined to say anything. “Anything beyond one or two releases beyond the current one gets a little speculative,” he says. “While we have discussions internally, we prefer not to show our hand yet.”
Lessons from KDE History
Having seen KDE 4.0 survive its premature birth and live to thrive, Seigo suggests that the recent history of the project has lessons for the greater free software community.
“The biggest thing we can do in the free software world right now,” he says, “is realize that we have this great culture of excellent and enjoyment. If we nurture this community, it is very powerful and positive. We need to maintain that.
“At the same time, we need to be competitive with proprietary offerings. Because we’ve shown that, when we don’t, people are pragmatic, and they will leave freedom and go back to proprietary platforms.”
“And, in the long run, that will leave us with nothing to show except for a strange group of people that work on something irrelevant. You have to be willing and able to move forward with innovative, cutting edge, push-the-boundaries technology. We need to really go, ‘Hey, we’re competing with these other two companies that are producing proprietary stuff, and are not about to just go away.’ At the same time, we can’t do that at the expense of what makes us healthy and vibrant and enjoyable. We have to do both at the same time, and I think we can.”
However, despite the challenge he describes, Seigo is optimistic about the future of the free desktop. “I think that with this next year’s round of releases and the drivers that are coming out in the next year for graphics chipsets, we are going to reach a new plateau of greatness. This operating system is going to become the smooth, well-functioning thing we wanted all along, and we’re going to be able to enjoy things like the fancy desktops and the things no one else has like Nepomuk.”
“And it’s going to be really exciting to be there for that. In ten years, we’re going to look back and say, ‘I was there when . . . ‘ This is another inflection point, and a good one.”