Beyond the Rumors of KDE 4.1's Folder View

Saturday Jul 12th 2008 by Bruce Byfield

Rumors have been sweeping through the free software community, adding to the controversy surrounding the popular desktop since version 4.0.

No icons on the KDE 4.1 desktop?

For over a month, rumors of this change have been sweeping through the free software community, adding to the controversy that has surrounded the popular desktop since version 4.0 was released in January.

However, like many of the concerns about the latest releases of KDE, these rumors have more to do with misleading media reports and users' fear of change than any reality. Behind the rumors, the truth is a new feature called Folder View, which, far from overturning established desktops, enhances them in a number of useful ways.

The rumors started because Aaron Seigo announced Folder View with a blog entry entitled "no more desktop icons in 4.1." Seigo immediately followed the title with "Now that I have your attention with that title," adding a smiley to show that he was joking.

Unfortunately, his next words -- "I just committed a change to the default desktop containment that removes desktop icon support" -- seem to reaffirm the title. As a result, most reports of his news reprinted his title, and the result was an outburst of indignation (often, I suspect, from careless readers who never read the rest of the reports). Many, in fact, swore either never to use KDE again, or to stay with the 3.x series as long as possible.

Compared to the rumors, the truth sounds disappointing at first. All Seigo was announcing was Folder View, a new applet written by Frederik Hoglund that allows you to put folders with a variety of views on to the desktop. What his dramatic title seems to indicate is that the desktop would no longer be confined to representations of single files or URLs -- although you can continue to use them if you wish.

Or, as Seigo wrote, "This is all yet another set of steps in the move away from a file-centric system and toward one that is flexible enough to work the way you do rather than making you work the way the computer thinks you should." And, very possibly, he is right, which makes the news almost -- if not quite -- as dramatic as the rumors.

Touring Folder View

You can judge Folder View for yourself by taking a look at the KDE 4.1 second beta -- for convenience, I suggest using the openSUSE KDE Live CD.

When the Live CD starts, you’ll see a transparent region of the screen entitled Desktop. This is the contents of the /Desktop folder in your home directory, and contains the icons that, in previous versions of KDE, you would find on your desktop. If you choose, you can also add new Folder Views by opening Add Widgets from the desktop toolbox in the upper right corner and scrolling down to Folder View.

As you start to work with Folder View, the first thing to notice is that, contrary to the rumors, it can co-exist with what Seigo calls "Old Skool" icons. True, icons within a Folder View do not -- for some reason -- have the collar of small icons around them that icons on the actual desktop do. However, if you drag the Install icon in the Desktop Folder View on to the desktop, it converts to a regular icon. You can also still create icons by dragging them from the menu or from the Dolphin file manager.

The only added complication is that, if you add a Folder View of an actual directory on your hard drive (as opposed to a folder you created in Folder View) to the desktop, you have the option of creating an icon or a Folder View. If you choose to create an icon, then the folder opens in Dolphin, giving you file manager capabilities that, in many cases, you never really need (and why desktop folders should be bound to the file manager is a tradition to question another day). But the point is, you are perfectly free to use traditional icons rather than a Folder View.

What a Folder View really amounts to is a mini-desktop which you can customize to your liking, adding local or remote files, folders, icons, and links to URLs, and devices from any place on your machine and network or the Internet. This flexibility lets your ingenuity run wild: For instance, you can create a Folder View of frequently used documents or applets, a listing of files on an FTP server, or a kind of To Do list that consists of the files you want to work on. In upcoming versions of KDE, you should be able to add the result of natural language searches, or the results of tag searches as well. Instead of having one desktop per workspace, with Folder View you can have several -- all of which are fully integrated with the regular desktop, and which you can edit, delete or drag contents to and from exactly as you can in the plain desktop.

You can even take the Desktop Folder View and expand it to fill the entire desktop, recreating the Old Skool desktop. In upcoming versions, you will be able to make this change through a graphical interface, but now, according to Aaron Sergio's video on Folder View, you can make the change by editing ~/.kde/share/config/plasma-applets.rc in a text editor and replacing the line plugin=desktop with plugin=folderview.

Limitations and reservations

The power of Folder View is as simple as it is obvious. However, the first incarnation of Folder view in KDE 4.1 is going to be slightly limited. You cannot position icons for yourself in a folder view, nor can you set a background for each Folder View that is separate from the desktop wallpaper. Considering the trouble that KDE met with 4.0, you might have expected the project to be more careful about introducing new features when they are only about 85 percent complete, but apparently not.

Also, although not planned, a file manager-like Detail view might also be useful, especially for Folder Views that contain content from many different sources. Currently, too, using the miniature icons to resize a Folder View resizes everything -- not just the container, but the contents as well -- meaning that any resizing must be proportional to avoid distortion. And, so long as I am dreaming, how about the ability to minimize Folder Views, and a panel applet that lists them?

Furthermore, I sometimes wonder whether Folder View, for all its usefulness, isn't implemented with more elaborateness than necessary. Rather than having Folder View listed among the applets in the desktop toolbox, why couldn't the nature of folders on the desktops simply be re-written?

Still, for all its current incompleteness and its wonky implementation, Folder View is a feature whose usefulness fully justifies the excitement with which it was announced. Let's hope that it doesn't get lost amidst the rumors and misconceptions.

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