I ask this question because the most popular post on my blog, KDE 3 vs KDE 4: It’s Finally Over, is still getting comments and a rather large amount of attention. Comments are still being written well over a year later after the original post was published.
Just by looking at the KDE project, it appears as if development has slowed down (Edit: I am referring to the development of new features, and from the comments obviously I was not clear enough about this — things have slowed down, the 4.3 release was in August and the 4.4 release will not come until next February). This certainly would not be a bad thing; the KDE project really needs to focus on stability and performance. The question still lingers: exactly how important is KDE 4?
If the post I wrote such a long time ago is any indication, KDE 4 is still a major issue. It is a major issue that is also difficult to analyze, leaving as many questions as their are answers for which only time will tell. Most of the comments I have received are not in favor of the new desktop environment, with many people still holding on to the tried and true KDE 3 desktop. I wonder if KDE 4 has hurt the KDE project? Just by taking a look at a list of distributions out there, the major distributions such as Ubuntu, Fedora, and Debian all use GNOME as their desktop environment of choice, and there are not really any major distributions with commercial backing that use KDE as their primary desktop. In this area nothing has really changed, distributions still choose the desktop environment that fits their user base.
The major problems with KDE 4 in its current state is its patchy development, performance, and reliabilty — something corporations do not want attached to their software. Sometimes I believe GNOME, in spite of its lack of controls for the people who want them and a lot of features, has a better development process. A focus on making the software stable and conservatively thinking out how new features should be implemented seem to be an advantage for the GNOME project. KDE’s development seems to be all over the place, without much order or quality controls. It is claimed as a work-in-progress. I know from experience people want software that is complete, something that is stable enough for them to rely on for their work. This is not to suggest that KDE 4 is necessarily bad or that it will not be a great product someday, but that it is simply not ready for enterprise or average consumer use. I believe that KDE 4 development has come too slow, and for an impation community that expects development to move at a pace that can compete with proprietary competitors with similar or better quality, KDE 4 is really not up to quota.
The issues the KDE project all appear to be interconnected in some way or another. KDE’s patchy development leads to little oversight on how the many features and eye-candy effect performance. Many people, including many who commented on the original post, have complained that the desktop environment seems too slow, and forces them to buy new hardware. Of course, this does not go over well with a community known for using old, outdated hardware to run their Linux systems.
Reliability also seems to have been affected. Just from my tests on my computer using KDE 4.3, I have found it to still be rather unstable. Connected to the patchy development and random inclusion of new features has led to the mass number of bugs hindering the software from reaching its full potential as a desktop contender. People care about the work they do on their computers, and having that at risk is certainly not in the interest of both companies or mainstream users. Perhaps this is the reason that KDE 4 has failed to make an impact on the major distributions and unseat the much-criticized GNOME desktop environment from being the most popular desktop?
From my observations of the software, the number of features and eye-candy is truly amazing. However, I find that in many cases that some of the features do not contribute to the usefulness of the software and are poorly implemented. The overall look of the system is nowhere as clean as it was in the earlier versions, and instead today it is a translucent mess. Also, much of the artwork is starting to take the look of KDE 3, a bit “cartooney,” with exceptionally large icons and images that look as if they were placed together in a matter of a few minutes, without much concern for whether or not the system would look better as a whole — that may be harsh, but I see the seeds of what could become a giant mess for the KDE project. Professionalism is key in this era, and they must be able to deliver a clean, professional environment, not just for their sake but for the very reputation of the open source movement as a whole. Just by taking a look at the major KDE applications such as Konqueror, KMail, and KOffice, they are in not as mature as their mainstream counterparts, or for that matter the other competitors in the Linux arena. Consider if the GNOME distributions went with all GNOME Project-built applications. It would be disastrous for a distribution to make such a choice! GNOME Office is not even close in comparison to OpenOffice or IBM’s Lotus Symphony, and the Epiphany web browser is not complete enough to compete with Firefox. Surely distributions could work on implementing better software into their version of KDE 4. Applications seem to be a sticking point, and the fact that many major applications are rarely written specifically for the KDE desktop is not a good sign for the acceptance of the system by developers — a potential problem for them in the future.
So, how important is KDE 4? To the KDE project, it is absolutely crucial. I hate to say it, but it looks as if KDE 4 has become KDE’s “Vista.” The KDE reputation has been tainted with a divided community, mediocre products, and a seeming lack of solid direction. I can only hope KDE becomes stable at some point in the near future, perhaps by choosing to make their “4.5” release their stable release fit for refinement and development, much like with KDE 3.5. Perhaps creating that stable environment for people to improve upon could lead to the creation of a new, thriving community, one just as influential as the one when KDE 3.5 was around. Otherwise, they may lose the market they have fought so hard to gain.
Update: Before commenting please read this updated article.