KDE 4.4 Beta: Incremental Doesn't Mean Directionless

Thursday Dec 10th 2009 by Bruce Byfield
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KDE’s releases are more interesting right now than just about any other open source software project.

Incremental releases for large projects are often grab bags of unrelated features. However, KDE SC 4.4 beta 1 (aka KDE 4.3.80) is a welcome exception to the rule.

True, the release includes new applications and improvements to existing applications on the KDE desktop. But it also features improvements to general desktop functionality and the evolution of several technologies and directions introduced earlier in the KDE 4 series of releases. In other words, it is ambitious, with far more innovations than than the average incremental release.

As I write, binary packages for KDE 4.4 are still finding their way into distributions. According to the release page, packages are available for Gentoo and openSUSE 11.0 and higher.

However, you can also upgrade to the upcoming Ubuntu Lucid Lynx release, and from Debian's Experimental repository. These sources provide a mostly complete preview of the new version of the KDE desktop, although in some cases you will find that new applications are not included.

New Applications and Tweaking Old Ones

For most users, the least interesting changes in KDE 4.4 are probably the changes to standard desktop applications. Some of these, like the use of Akonadi, IDE's personal information engine by Kaddressbook, are behind-the-scenes improvements that may go largely unnoticed by most users.

Others, like Bloglio, a basic blogging tool, or educational programs like Cantor and Rocs are new applications that you have to install specifically -- assuming, of course, that the distribution you are using have packaged them. Through no fault of the applications, all of these are easily overlooked, especially if you are only mildly curious about the beta.

In still other cases, the applications are already reasonably mature, so that many of the most noticeable changes are minor ones. For instance, if you use KRunner, the supercharged run command and menu substitute, you may be interested in the fact that it now works with bookmarks or opens by default anchored to the top of the desktop -- but, chances are, only mildly so.

For the average user, the most interesting new application is apt to be Plasma Netbook, the new KDE desktop for netbooks presented in the beta as a technology preview. When you start Plasma Netbook, it replaces the standard KDE desktop until you close it from the taskbar. If you are considering running KDE on a netbook or any other small screen, then you should find a look at Plasma Netbook well worth your time -- it's one of the most promising netbook desktops I have tried.

Desktop Improvements

Since the radical redesign of the desktop in version 4.0, KDE has been spent the last two years gradually adding usability. Much of the groundwork in usability has been done in earlier releases, but 4.4 adds refinements to help fine-tune usability.

Since 4.0, KDE has had Activities, eventual replacements for Workspaces, but not emphasized them. In fact, they have been mostly hidden in the menu of the Desktop Toolkit ("the cashew" in the upper right corner) under the item Zoom Out.

Now, in 4.4, Activities are finally mentioned specifically in the menu, making users more likely to actually use them. Go to Multiple Desktops in System Settings, and you will also find an option to associate a different Activity with each desktop -- a much-needed step forward in removing the confusion between Activities and Workspaces.

Another welcome change is the additions to the hotspots on the edges of the desktop. In System Settings -> Desktop -> Screen Edges, you now have several additional options for compositing effects when you move the mouse over a hotspot.

Moreover, in a possible answer to Aero Snap in Windows 7, KDE 4.4 adds the option to maximize a window when you move it against the top of the screen, or to tile it vertically when you move it to the edge of the screen. Such features require that you stay alert to avoid activating them accidentally, but might help to reduce repetitive stress injuries from clicking.

In something of the same way, changes to the notification system may have been inspired by Ubuntu's efforts to improve notices in GNOME over the past year.

In recent releases, KDE has already moved to give users a chance to control the number of notifications clamoring for attention by giving the option of what types of notices appear on the desktop. Now, in 4.4, KDE goes one step further and adds a notice history from a widget on the panel that displays the number of notices in the history, and an Indicator widget that displays and stores messages from applications.

The advantage of such features is that you do not have to stop working to read the notices right away -- or scramble in a panic to close windows to read them before they disappear. The feature would benefit from configuration settings to control the number of notices in history, and the length of time they are available, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.

However, the major desktop enhancement in 4.4 is tabbed windows. From each window's menu, you can now group or ungroup it with another window. This is a feature that OpenOffice.org users in particular have been demanding for years -- and the fact that it has arrived at the desktop level instead of the application level only makes it more versatile.

Tabbed windows are an ideal way to reduce the sorting through multiple windows that is necessary when you are working with several applications at the same time, and a natural complement to Activities and Workspaces. The idea is simple, yet you can immediately see how it can simplify workflow and minimize breaks in your concentration.

KDE Old Promises and New

But as welcome as features like tabbed windows are, what really makes KDE 4.4 a significant release is that it makes several features that have been in development for several years usable for the first time.

One of these long-maturing features is Nepomuk, the so-called "semantic desktop" that tags files for easy retrieval. Nepomuk has been available throughout the KDE 4 series of releases. But, for the most part, it has been a stub observable only when you check the list or processes that your account is running.

KDE 4.4 changes that, so that you can use Nepomuk for searches in the Dolphin file manager and the Gwenview image viewer. Finally, after more than four years, users will have the chance to judge whether all the effort that has gone into Nepomuk over the last three years is worthwhile (my initial impression is that it is).

Equally important, in 4.4, KDE's plans for the social desktop are maturing. First announced by KDE last spring, the social desktop can be described as the opposite of cloud computing: Instead of funneling everything through the browser to online applications, the social desktop brings online resources out of the browser and distributes them throughout the desktop.

4.3 saw the first proof of concepts of the social desktop in a couple of widgets. However, in 4.4, social desktop widgets have started to predominate.

You can find new widgets like Blackboard, a simple paint program, or Spellcheck, and improvements to old widgets like the Device Notifier, which can now track free space on non-removable disks as well as the presence of removable disk, but most of the effort in widgets in 4.4 has gone into social desktop widgets.

Select Add Widgets from the Desktop Toolkit, and a wealth of social desktop tools displays. In addition to the openDesktop widget introduced in the 4.3 release, you can track emails and IRC messages alike in the Incoming Messages or work with your favorite online services via the Facebook or Googleclock widgets. You can also microblog at the site of your choice. If you need help with KDE, you can click the Knowledgebase Widget. If you want to give feedback, you can use the QA Feedback widget.

In other words, if you choose, you can de-centralize, leaving the browser behind and remain in the highly customizable desktop environment instead. The result feels less constrained than doing all these activities in the browser -- and, because many of the widgets are well-designed, often easier as well.

At the same time that 4.4 makes good on Nepomuk and the social desktop, it also introduces the concept of sharing widgets over a network. I suspect users will have mixed reactions to this feature: while the potential for collaboration and information sharing are obvious, so are the potential security risks. Nor are those risks fully addressed by having sharing turned off by default, especially since the difference between the choices of “Share this widget on the network” and “Allow everybody to freely access this widget” may not be clear to everybody.

Still, KDE developers deserve full credit for this imaginative new feature. It should be intriguing to see how it is received and evolved in upcoming releases.

Incremental with a Difference

After the KDE 4 series became usable with the 4.2 release, I expected the pace of development would slow down. And, to a great extent it has -- but not nearly as much as I expected.

You may not agree with everything that KDE has done in the KDE 4 series. At the very least, you might have reservations about some aspects of its features. But, even if you judge some of its experiments to be failures, KDE still seems to have a sense of direction that GNOME and other interfaces have yet to match.

Alone among desktop developers, KDE seems to have grasped that the free desktop is no longer trying to equal the proprietary ones and that the task now is to imagine what the computer desktop could become. This perception gives KDE a sense of direction that makes its releases more interesting right now than just about any other free and open source software project that I can think of.

Nor is KDE 4.4 an exception. I may not like everything I see in the beta or how some features are implemented, but I am looking forward to the final release so that I can use it on my main workstation.

ALSO SEE: 51 Open Source Tools to Protect Your Identity

AND: The Linux Desktop: Nine Myths

AND: 49 Hot New Open Source Applications

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