Has KDE Lost the Evolutionary Advantage?

Wednesday Jun 24th 2015 by Bruce Byfield

Once a center of desktop innovation, KDE Plasma is suffering from over-caution and a lack of direction.

In 2009, I wrote that KDE had the evolutionary advantage over GNOME. By that, I meant that KDE had a clear direction for future development, and was the likeliest source of desktop innovation.

Over the next few years, that comment consistently proved accurate. Even now, KDE's Plasma remains my favorite desktop by a large margin. No other desktop environment comes close to Plasma in customization, and many of its features have yet to find their way into other interfaces.

However, the description is becoming inaccurate. Increasingly, Plasma is backing away from visible innovation, and KDE has missed chances to expand on to mobile devices.

In this Age of Uncertainty

To be fair, Plasma is not the only desktop whose development has become cautious. The years 2008-2012 saw user revolts against major changes to GNOME and KDE, and a mediocre reception to the introduction of Unity. In the aftermath, the developers of desktop environments were left understandably nervous, and remain concerned about the pace of change.

Also, in the last few years, Plasma has been ported to the Qt5 framework, and much of it rewritten. This process was unavoidable, and seems to have resulted in greater responsiveness, although questions of speed are notoriously subjective in computer interfaces.

Yet at the same time that this process has happened, KDE as a community has done little to extend the concept of the desktop. The innovations that marked Plasma 4, such as Activities, tabbed windows, and desktop layout, have received only minor tweaks -- the Activities window, for example, scrolls vertically in the latest Plasma releases instead of horizontally as in the first releases.

Nor have these innovations been publicized and explained, or, in some cases fully documented. No doubt the lack of volunteers is part of the problem, but sometimes the impression is that KDE is downplaying the features that made Plasma 4 so memorable.

This impression is strengthened by the fact that many features introduced in Plasma 4 have been only partly ported to Plasma 5. For example, only the two most basic desktop layouts of eleven have been ported so far.

When I asked Plasma developer Marco Martin if the rest would be ported, I was told that, "They will be eventually ported if the user demand arises," which sounds as though no schedule exists.

Moreover, without any prompting from me, Martin added that, "we are concentrated on getting the default experience and the components that were more widely used as good as possible, so we are a bit conservative" -- exactly the word I would have chosen.

Finding enough developers to maintain features is also a problem, according to Martin.

Yet whatever the reason, like other free desktop environments, Plasma developers are avoiding major changes and making any changes carefully. Although KDE itself recovered successfully from its user revolt, after the controversies over Plasma 4, probably no one should blame a tendency to caution.

Temporary Loss of Vision

A recent sign of a lack of direction was the KDE project's failure to support the attempt between 2012-14 to produce Vivaldi, a tablet that ran on completely free software. Earlier, the project had produced Plasma Netbook and Plasma Active for tablets. Plasma Netbook now survives as the Search and Launch desktop layout in Plasma 4, but otherwise, neither of these variations on the standard Plasma desktop ever shipped on hardware.

Reasoning that these efforts were of little use in themselves, in January 2012, Plasma developer Aaron Seigo announced Vivaldi (originally, Spark). Development was through MakePlayLive, a cooperative corporation, but suffered delays due to inexperience, problems of scale, and the difficulty of assuring the use of free software. Finally, in late 2013, MakePlayLive introduced Improv, its self-produced engineering board, as a way of financing Vivaldi, but by June 2014, the entire effort had failed.

As Seigo himself said, Vivaldi and Improv "would have been a massive strategic and practical boost" to KDE. At the time, no mobile devices with any claim to being free existed. In fact, to this day, no mobile device or engineering board exists with the degree of openness that Vivaldi attempted, and even a failure in the market place would have promoted free software and the projects that had taken the gamble.

Yet the free software community as a whole showed only slight interest. According to Seigo, "There isn't much business experience in the free software communities. It doesn't help that most of the companies out there with a focus on free software do not care about mobile in the least."

Of KDE in particular, Seigo says, "I don't think KDE is the right community with which to engage in these sorts of things. There is not enough understanding of appreciation for why such a thing is important, and certainly too few people willing and able to step up and make a difference-making contribution."

In the year since Vivaldi's failure was announced, KDE has resigned itself to being simply the leading desktop environment for Linux workstations and laptops. Meanwhile, Ubuntu phones have been released, using a desktop that, by all accounts, owes several features to Plasma Active, the desktop that KDE ignores.

In the Horse Latitudes

Nothing is wrong with focusing on producing a stable desktop. If nothing else, it is a mark of distinction that Linux Mint, the most innovative producer of desktop environments after KDE, borrows concepts such as hot spots and desktop widgets from Plasma.

However, there is something considerably less wrong with being more innovative and more ambitious. Designed for an age of smaller computers, the classical desktop is increasingly strained under modern file loads, and anything that can ease that strain is welcome.

I cannot blame KDE for being conservative, considering recent history. Yet, at the same time, I hope that the designers of Plasma find direction and re-discover the benefits of innovation as soon as possible.

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