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Tuesday, 18 October 2016 14:24

Twenty and counting: KDE marks another milestone


Twenty years ago, a German software developer named Matthias Ettrich kicked off a project to provide Linux users with all the desktop functionality that Windows users had at the time.

The detailed email inviting participation was sent by Ettrich on 14 October 1996. He outlined his ideas and goals and attracted plenty of interest. The K Desktop Environment project was on its way.

Ettrich had a simple objective: "The idea is NOT to create a GUI for the complete UNIX-system or the System-Administrator. For that purpose the UNIX-CLI with thousands of tools and scripting languages is much better. The idea is to create a GUI for an ENDUSER. Somebody who wants to browse the web with Linux, write some letters and play some nice games."

Over the years, as KDE has matured and become more and more sophisticated, it has gone well beyond that simple, humble goal.

The name KDE was intended to be some kind of play on CDE, the Common Desktop Environment that had been developed by HP, IBM and Sun. Ettrich initially thought he would call it the Kool Desktop Environment, but it ended up as the K Desktop Environment and later simply as KDE.


The Plasma Desktop as it looks today.

In 2009, the project did a bit of rebranding to differentiate the different parts of the desktop into Plasma Workspaces, KDE Applications, and the KDE Platform – they were bundled as KDE Software Compilation 4.

Later, in version 5.0, each product got its own release cycle and the three are no longer bundled together.

The Plasma Desktop today looks like a million bucks. It has mature applications for practically every need, with about the only complaint being that it requires a good deal of grunt to run at a respectable speed.

But then given that practically every desktop machine or laptop these days is pretty powerful, this is not an obstacle to running KDE.

The first time I used KDE, in 1998, it was at version 1.1. Red Hat, the Linux distribution that got me started on the free operating system, was using FVWM as its desktop environment. FVWM was very basic, but then Linux use on the desktop wasn't exactly widespread. Neither was Linux use on the server something taken for granted.

But the distribution known as Mandrake — which later morphed into Mandriva and now survives as Mageia — had adopted KDE. Mandrake was so much like Red Hat that it was often described as "Red Hat with KDE".


Version 1.0 of the K Desktop environment.

I installed version 1.1 on my Red Hat 5.2 box and found it surprisingly advanced for its time. It had a great little utility called kppp for connecting to the Internet (that was a time when 56k modems were the norm in Australia) and for someone new to Linux it was much more usable than utilities like minicom.

KMail was a wonderful mail client even then. Moving from Windows to Linux is a difficult task because of the number of bad habits that one accumulates when working with Windows and KDE eased that transition for me.

KDE 2.0 was another big release which came along towards the end of 2000. But 4.0 was the release that got lots of people talking because of the radical redesign; unfortunately many never understood that a .0 release was never a stable one.

The redesign thus got many people riled up. The man behind it, Aaron Seigo, one of those rare visionaries among programmers, had to put up with a good bit of flak at this time, and he often gave as good as he got. But he stuck to his guns and KDE is so much the better for it.

One of the really great things about KDE is that it is not a marketing-oriented project. Its members are low-key, extremely so.

For me the best application, the one that beats the pants off any of its kind on other operating systems, is k3b, the application for burning disks. It is truly in a class of its own.

One rarely sees any news about the KDE project except twice or thrice a year. There isn't a lot of shouting and hand-waving. There are no flame-fests on the KDE mailing lists either. But development moves on.

The project is the second in size in terms of developers after the Linux kernel itself.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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