Wow. What happened? It’s slow, it’s ugly, it’s unstable. I realise it’s not exactly a state of the art machine I’m using but, nevertheless, my true and trusty T41 has run everything else I’ve ever thrown at it: Windows XP, Gnome under Ubuntu with its “enable desktop effects” wobbly windows and all. With 2GB of RAM it’s still a serious machine after 6 years on the go…until it met KDE 4, that is.
Why am I using KDE at all? I make a point of not doing so usually, aside from one indispensable application: Amarok. I use Amarok for one very important purpose: organising my music collection. With its support for visualising your tags in all possible dimensions, automatic cover art fetching and its killer “organise files” feature it is pretty much the ultimate MP3 collection organising utility. Apparently, it also plays music. That it was the one odd-ball KDE application remaining on my desktop was a perfectly acceptable compromise, given the advantages.
Last weekend’s upgrade to Ubuntu Jaunty, however, had the unfortunate side-effect of dragging in KDE 4. Suddenly Amarok (Amarok 2, now) had a totally alien UI with car-aaazy decorations looking like something out of CDE in 1995 and a truly horrible (and un-hideable) plug-in system in the middle third of the screen, used for no less than 4 separate high-tech purposes such as “disconnect media device”. That it now crashes regularly and is slower than before is simply icing on the cake.
The KDE Years
It’s very sad and it certainly wasn’t always like this. After years of neglecting the grand “desktop environments” of KDE and Gnome in favour of Afterstep, I was won over in 2000 by KDE 2. It looked good, was easy to configure and – most of all – had the then amazing Konqueror filemanager and browser. In a world before Firefox, what Konqueror had achieved was simply stunning: it rendered pages better than Netscape, was nicer to use and, though it had seemingly come out of nowhere, nobody was surprised to find Apple using its rendering engine as the basis for OS X’s Safari.
It was so obviously, clearly good that I didn’t look back for several years and in fact went on to install KDE in the course of several contracting jobs, including one just after that fateful initial discovery in which a fleet of thin client workstations served a KDE 2 desktop to a school interested in exploring alternatives to Microsoft software.
The Gnome Years
Years later, a similar instant switch occurred when I tried Ubuntu and its default window environment, Gnome. Having disregarded Gnome for years, here, for the first time on a Linux desktop, was a nice default look and feel. Nicer and more polished than Windows which – though I hated using it for any length of time – had undoubtedly always looked and felt better right out of the box. The file manager was good: nice thumbnails and you could burn CDs by selecting a bunch of files and right-clicking “burn to CD”. GIMP looked and worked well – helped, obviously, by being the original GTK application but nevertheless fitting in perfectly. Firefox had come of age, too, of course, long ago replacing Konqueror. By now, of course, all our work was done in the browser anyway and that holy trinity of file manager, web browser and photo software was all I really needed or wanted to work right…except for Amarok, of course.
In contrast with KDE’s continuing “how many pixels between a window’s outer-frame and its inner widget bounding box” approach, Gnome had spent time studying what users actually wanted to configure and stripped away all the trimmings. There really was nothing offensive to reconfigure, beyond perhaps a desktop background. In doing so, they had foreshadowed Apple’s rise which was built on providing good looking hardware and software that just worked and that ordinary people could use.
That geeks have since flocked to OS X might indicate that it’s not just ordinary people who want their computers to, like, work. I suspect those who prefer to run free software or are overly attached to their IBM hardware (or both) have probably switched by now to Gnome for this very reason; perhaps this migration of talented hackers itself fatally dented KDE’s chance of ever mounting a resurgence. For me, it seems that, after the initial quantum leap of version 2, KDE remains stuck in a time warp in the year 2001. Suggestions for a new MP3 collection software are very welcome!