Torvalds, KDE 4, and the Media Circus

Monday Jan 26th 2009 by Bruce Byfield

Linus Torvalds’ recent comments ignited afresh the GNOME and KDE flame wars, yet partisans on both sides are missing something crucial.

Just as KDE 4 is poised to prove itself with the user-friendly 4.2 release, the year-long controversy over the changes from the KDE 3 release has ignited again. This time, the spark was a interview comment by Linus Torvalds that he had switched to GNOME and thought that the KDE release had been mis-managed.

Torvalds’ comment produced a flood of response across the web, including an apologia from leading KDE developer Aaron Seigo. And, as often happens in online discussions, both sides seem to have grabbed hold of part of the truth while ignoring the rest, with much of the distortion due to misrepresentations in the free software press.

Torvalds' comments came near the end of an article by Rodney Gedda for Computerworld. Asked how KDE 4 had affected him as a user, Torvalds replied by referring to his personal experience, as well as the fact that the KDE 4 series of releases is a major break from the previous version, and sometimes lacks backwards compatibility:

I used to be a KDE user. I thought KDE 4.0 was such a disaster I switched to GNOME. I hate the fact that my right button doesn't do what I want it to do. But the whole "break everything" model is painful for users and they can choose to use something else.
I realise the reason for the 4.0 release, but I think they did it badly. They did so many changes it was a half-baked release. It may turn out to be the right decision in the end and I will re-try KDE, but I suspect I'm not the only person they lost.
I got the update through Fedora and there was a mismatch from KDE 3 to KDE 4.0. The desktop was not as functional and it was just a bad experience for me. I'll revisit it when I reinstall the next machine, which tends to be every six to eight months.
The GNOME people are talking about doing major surgery so it could also go the other way.

Although these off-hand comments were only half a page in a six-page interview, they were made its focus in reporting on Slashdot and other online news outlets.

One reason for the attention -- aside, of course, from Torvalds' fame -- was that he had made headlines three years ago by posting on the GNOME Usability list that, "I personally just encourage people to switch to KDE. This 'users are idiots, and are confused by functionality' mentality of GNOME is a disease. If you think your users are idiots, only idiots will use it. I don't use GNOME because, in striving to be simple, it has long since reached the point where it simply doesn't do what I need it to do."

The difference between the two comments were enough to revive the long-smoldering GNOME vs. KDE flame war, as well as the noisy discontent in some circles with the first two releases of KDE 4. Inevitably, KDE defenders soon added their voices to the blaze, especially on Slashdot, where many of nearly 800 comments were dedicated to refighting the views of KDE that have been expressed since KDE 4.0 was released a year ago.

Provisional Support

The main point that seems to be overlooked in the controversy is that Torvalds' support is provisional. He has not retracted his earlier comments on GNOME, nor has he abandoned KDE with ringing cries of, "Nevermore!" In fact, he will revisit his decision in half a year.

This position sounds similar to Torvalds' view of distributions. Asked about his favorite distribution, Torvalds once replied, "I don’t really tend to care much, I’ve changed distributions over the years, and to me the most important thing tends to be that they are easy to install and upgrade, and allow me to do the only part I really care about - the kernel . . . . I’ll take the nice ones with simple installers etc, because to me, that’s the whole and only point of using a distribution in the first place."

Next Page: One Inexpert Opinion

Torvalds' view of desktops seems equally casual. While curious enough to try different ones, his main criteria when choosing seems to be the ability to focus on what matters to him -- and, evidently, simple curiosity about what different projects are doing.

One Inexpert Opinion

Torvalds' outspokenness and celebrity always make him good copy, but, Segio is also right to point out the obvious: "Linus is precisely one user. For every Linux Torvalds (there's exactly one of them), we have 10s of millions of other KDE users."

The danger, as Seigo suggests, is that undue weight will be given to that one person, precisely because of who that person is. "I don't like losing any user," Seigo says, "and such a happening can be deflating and make one second guess what they are doing." That sort of reflection "isn't an entirely bad thing," Seigo acknowledges, but he points out that the pressure of reacting to such celebrity criticism can "result in bad decision making or paralysis."

Seigo's particular concern is that undue attention to Torvalds' opinion -- or, to be precise, the media-distortion masquerading as Torvalds’ opinion -- will be a "fear of innovation. 'Don't do anything too big, because it'll cost you and cost you ...' is the lesson some are taking away from all this."

The reaction to Torvalds' off-hand remarks is evidence that the associational fallacy -- the mistaken belief something is good or bad because of the person who endorses it (or seems to) -- is alive and ranting in the free and open source software community. Although Torvald's hard work and expert knowledge of operating systems and Intel architecture deserve respect, he is not a usability expert.

Nor do his brief comments, even when taken in context, suggest that he has thought deeply about his reactions. His usability comments deserve as much consideration by KDE developers as those of any other user -- but no more.

Engineering vs. Management

Torvalds' knowledge of usability seems limited to his personal experience. However, after managing a large project like the Linux kernel for eighteen years, Torvalds does know a thing or two when he talks about release management.

Consequently, when he suggests that the release of KDE 4 could have gone better, his words should carry some weight. Exactly what went wrong with the KDE 4 release is a complex question, but the points that Torvalds alludes to in passing -- a release with fewer features than the previous series, the lack of backward compatibility, the rush by distributions to include a release that was not yet ready for the general user -- all seem to have been part of it. These causes all suggest that while the engineering behind KDE 4 has proved to be sound enough, the managerial decisions -- such as what to release as a 4.0 release, and when to enable or add features -- were not made nearly so well.

Next Page: Media Circus

For someone like Seigo, who has been not only a leader in KDE development but frequently its public face, such an admission must be difficult to handle. Still, after a year like the one that KDE has had, it's alarming to read Seigo defending the managerial decisions (or, possibly, not separating them out from the engineering ones):

"While 4.0 was a brutally hard decision and one that cost me (and I assume others) sleepless nights, it was what we needed to do to ensure that we didn't end up stagnating ourselves into irrelevance. By "ourselves" I mean the F/OSS desktop, which includes the Linux desktop . . . . [W]hile '08 will be remembered as a freaking tough year . . . we're already past that time period and into the beginning of the pay off period. That period will extend several years out, and will gain us yet millions more users on all sorts of systems."
In theory, people should be able to say that KDE 4 was an engineering triumph and a managerial disaster, but, by not making this distinction, KDE defenders like Seigo open up the possibility of the same situation reoccurring again. Such remarks might call into question KDE's commitment to the new Community Working Group that is partly intended to avoid repeating what happened with KDE 4. Their defensiveness also undermines Seigo's efforts to put Torvalds' remarks into their proper perspective.

Media circus

Seigo probably goes too far when he implies that the timing of this news could be deliberately intended to undermine the reception of KDE 4.2. Nor does his bitter comment that, if Torvalds switches back to KDE, the change will go unreported seem an accurate prediction: Torvalds is a celebrity, and many journalists are only too happy to report on celebrities whenever they get a chance.

Still, Seigo is generally right that the parties involved in this story are not only Torvalds and the KDE community, but also the members of the free software media, who have "sensationalized the article". In the headlines alone -- let alone the stories -- journalists have ripped Torvalds' remarks out of context, and given them an emphasis that he did not intend. Moreover, they have repeated each other's mistakes, often with near-identical headlines, rather than evaluating for themselves. The results are both the needless stirring of latent animosities in the community and the framing of discussions such that both sides are vulnerable to being put in false positions that they probably would otherwise not defend.

This situation benefits no one. There are aspects of Torvalds' remarks that KDE might absorb, and aspects of the comments from KDE stalwarts like Seigo that might put Torvalds' remarks into proper perspective for the general community. But, thanks to the media reporting, such nuanced thinking is next to impossible -- no matter how badly all of us need it.

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