KDE 4.1 Beta 2: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Saturday Jul 5th 2008 by Bruce Byfield

Not only did KDE developers try to make too many changes too quickly, but they have yet to absorb the lesson in 4.x's muted reception.

KDE 4.1 is supposed to make everything right with the recently troubled desktop. Everyone agrees now that KDE 4.0 was a mistake. However, what the mistake was -- and whose -- is a matter of opinion. KDE developers blame distributions for rushing to include a release that was never intended for everyday use, while users blame developers for changing everything.

On the Fedora list, some are calling for keeping KDE 3.5 as an option in future releases of the distro, while one reviewer has suggested that KDE development should be forked, so that no one has to use the 4.x version. To these reactions, which seem as much a fear of the new as legitimate criticism, KDE speakers have replied by encouraging everyone to wait for the improvements coming in 4.1.

However, if the second beta of 4.1 is any indication, it will be only partly successful in quieting user dissent. On the one hand, KDE 4.1 includes the first 4.x versions of several major KDE applications, which goes a long way toward improving the user experience. And, in both other programs as well as the desktop, the second beta sports countless improvements in functionality and design. On the other hand, not only are many of the interface changes that people complain about still there, but the new Folder View raises a whole new set of issues about how users organize their desktops.

The second beta is still prone to unexplained crashes, so you probably do not want to compile it from source, or install it on any of the distributions that have packages for it, like Debian and Ubuntu. Instead, the simplest way to investigate KDE 4.1 is to download and burn the latest openSUSE KDE Live CD.

The improvements

In KDE 4.0, new games and some utilities had new versions, but many standard KDE programs did not. KDE 4.1 continues the porting of applications, notably with 4.x versions of KGet, a versatile download manager, and the KContacts, the KDE personal information suit. According to reports, a series of new widgets are also part of KDE 4.1, including a special character selection, an alternative menu, and a moon phase applet, although none are available in the KDE Four Live CD. The Live CD does, however, include the latest release alpha release of KOffice 2.0, a project technically separate from the desktop but naturally closely associated with it. All these additions go a long way to making KDE 4.1 more usable than its predecessors, especially since backwards compatibility with 3.x KDE programs could be haphazard.

In addition, 4.1 sees some fine-tuning of both the desktop and basic programs. The desktop has the same general layout as earlier 4.x releases, with the main menu and panel on the bottom and the desktop toolbox in the top right corner, but many of these features are more finished in 4.1.

A small example: in earlier 4.x releases, placing a panel on the top of the desktop obscured the toolbox and made it unusable, while in 4.1, each panel has a small icon for the toolbox on the far right. Similarly, the panel, which was essentially uneditable in 4.0, now has a graphic configuration tool that appears temporarily above the panel while you make changes. Judging from the menu, in the finished release, you may also be able to add widgets to the panel, although that feature isn't implemented in the second beta.

Individual programs also have that extra bit of functionality. For instance the Konqueror Web browser now has an Undo feature and the Dolphin file manager tabbed views.

Lingering design questions

Unquestionably, the general usability has improved in 4.1. However, like earlier versions of its release series, KDE 4.1 still offers fewer customization options than KDE 3.5.x. You cannot, for instance, install most of the types of panels that were available in the previous series. Nor can you drag and drop between the panel and the desktop, although you can add icons to either one from the menu. As for aligning icons and widgets on the desktop, you had better have a good eye, because KDE 4.1 cannot automatically organize them.

More importantly, at least two of the features that everybody has been complaining about are still part of the 4.1 paradigm: The collar of mini-icons around each item on the desktop that duplicates the contents of the right-click menu, and the main menu in which choosing a sub-menu means replacing the display of its parent, rather than opening up an accordion-like display. This same behavior is also used in the system settings -- and, in both places, it makes navigation needlessly difficult.

Introducing Folder View

With new design decisions already causing user revolts, in version 4.1, KDE continues its redefinition of the desktop with Folder View. In earlier versions of KDE, folders added to the desktop are simply file manager views, full of features like tree views that are largely irrelevant to a collection of icons. By contrast, if you select Add Widgets -> Folder View from the desktop toolbox in 4.1, you add a new class of widget that amounts to a plain container. This container can be dragged around the desktop or resized just like any other widget, or deleted altogether. Used with a little imagination, it can greatly increase available desktop space without the overhead of adding another virtual workspace

In theory -- and, to a large extent, in practice, too -- Folder View is an overdue concept. It helps to organize icons into customizable groups, making the desktop tidier. Unfortunately, its reception was not helped by the announcement last month that the intent of Folder View was to eliminate icons altogether. The rumor is not true -- in fact, a Folder View is now the main way to add icons to the desktop -- but this dramatic statement touched off an unnecessary panic.

Another problem with Folder View is that, according to Aaron Sergio's presentation on how it works, features like automatic desktop positioning and wallpaper customization are not due to arrive in Folder View until version 4.2. In other words, once again, KDE users are being asked to suspend judgment and cope with a feature still in development -- and, after the experience with 4.0, the expectation is making users feel tetchy.

This year, next year

How stable KDE 4.1 will be when released at the end of this month is anybody's guess. But, judging from its features, the release will be a major milestone in the 4.x series. Unfortunately, it will almost certainly not be the complete answer to user discontent that has been promised. It might even drive large number of users away from KDE altogether.

Such a reaction would be misguided. KDE 4.x has many features, including the use of scalable vector graphics and natural language searches that make it the most innovative free desktop currently in development. Moreover, if you dislike some of its experiments, you can work around them with no more trouble than it takes to change your desktop wallpaper -- for instance, one of the widgets you can add to the desktop is a KDE 3.5.x menu.

It seems, though, that not only did KDE developers try to make too many changes too quickly for much of the user base to accept, but that -- judging from the development of Folder View -- they have yet to absorb the lesson in 4.x's muted reception.

Very likely, KDE users will have to wait for another release or two beyond 4.1 before the new version of KDE matches the features of earlier ones, especially in customization. Meanwhile, in their unjustified rejection of change and their justified frustration, KDE users may very easily miss the fact that version 4.1 is part of an intriguing process in desktop evolution.

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