May 10, 2010

Ubuntu With a K

Click here to read the original article on TechHaze - I'm starting to be very pissed off. “By what?” you might ask. Well, the answer has to do with cooperation.

When people do things separately, their strengths become apparent. Unfortunately, their weaknesses too. Linux is a great platform because it gives choice to its users. Two of the most debated choices in the Linux ecosystem are the choice of distribution / Operating System (OS) and the choice of Desktop Environment (DE). This diversity permits an incredible array of possible combinations, choices multiplied by choices, until each and every user can find what he or she needs. These choices also give us the possibility to compare, too see what we like and don't like, and to dig out the strengths and weaknesses of each of our choices.

The Limits of Ubuntu

Ubuntu has a great experience overall. It can satisfy most home users and in that it has reached its goal perfectly. Ubuntu is easy to use, in many respects easier to use than both Mac OS X and Windows 7, and I recommend it to many people I know.

After I did my review of Ubuntu Lucid, Florian Wardell told me he was tempted to install Ubuntu and give it a try. I spend a lot of my time criticizing his choice operating system (Mac OS X) and boasting the merits of Ubuntu, so it would have seemed natural if I had told him to go for it. This is not what i did however.

Instead of a continued praise of Ubuntu I hinted on what I percieve as one of it's chief weaknesses: GNOME. It's a pity Ubuntu still uses GNOME because it still feels and works like the last generation of Desktop environments, something that even a non-techie can feel if he has used one of the latest DE's extensively.

I do not question the creation of the GNOME Desktop Environment. GNOME is clean, simple and easy. At the time of it's creation, it was imperative for Linux to have a 100% free (as in freedom) desktop, something that the KDE project did not deliver (because of the Qt license at the time). As the two DE's evolved, GNOME took the smarter turns. It may have been simple, ugly, non-configurable and bland, but at least it wasn't confusing to use and remained simple. When KDE felt like a collection of features, GNOME felt like a solid desktop.

I do not question the original Choice of GNOME over KDE or any other DE or Window Manager either. I started using Linux several years ago with Ubuntu but I tried Kubuntu, the KDE version of Ubuntu, very early on. I liked several things about KDE, and my first thought was that it was a pity to have Kubuntu as a side-project, that it deserved as much attention as Ubuntu, and that it would have ben a better idea to have two Ubuntu derivatives, Gubuntu and Kubuntu. Very quickly, I changed my mind. Mainly, that was because my Kubuntu system was always far from stable, but I also felt the usability problems in KDE. The fact that it wasn't adapted for use by novice computer users and it's too high resemblance to Windows were my major concerns. GNOME was clearly the right choice at the time.

My opinion, however, is that this choice of GNOME over KDE is outdated. It doesn't consider the past and future evolutions of both desktop. I believe that GNOME doesn't serve the goals of Ubuntu.

But why Ubuntu?

At this point you might be asking why I even bother with Ubuntu. True, if I don't like its choice of desktop, I could easily switch to, say, OpenSuse. After all, that's precisely what Linux is about.

That said, Linux is evolving. Our beloved kernel is leaving the realm of geek exclusivity and going mainstream. In other words, it is now directly competing against the two major proprietary systems: Apple Mac OS and Microsoft Windows. In the forefront of this battle is Canonical's Ubuntu. Ubuntu has become popular for several reasons.

However, it is not because of its popularity that I'll use it as the sole opposition to Mac and Windows. Ubuntu is probably the only Linux distribution that fights against the two OS's on a level playing field. Ubuntu has the same goals as Windows and Mac OS, Ubuntu aims the same audience.

When new users come to Linux, they don't judge Linux, they judge the computer as a whole. I've had people telling me that “Linux is s**t” because they had tried the default Xandros installation on their EeePC (which sucks, for that matter), or because they had tested Strangebuntu/Tomboctubuntu, a variant of a variant of a variant of Ubuntu. Fortunately, most users will come to Ubuntu as their first Linux OS, and they will judge Linux by the (generally pleasant) Ubuntu experience. It is therefore extremely important for Linux as a hole that Ubuntu fares well.

Ubuntu is rather unique in the world of Linux. Despite all the criticism that it has received, it has managed to capture users. At every release, it improves, not only because Linux in general is improving, but because it rethinks the desktop in new and interesting ways. Ubuntu is also doing what only proprietary systems did in the past and is integrating services like Ubuntu One--an integrated cloud-based solution--and the Ubuntu One Music store.

If it were just that Ubuntu was at the forefront of Linux, I might jut give it some peace and let it grow. Ubuntu is much more than that, and Linux has a stake in it.


KDE and GNOME are now very different projects, some may even say that they have changed roles. GNOME is a huge project, dominated in some part by its corporate support. Most of the major distributions – which are almost all supported by a company – use GNOME. It is not surprising that each has a stake in the GNOME evolution. As a consequence, GNOME can't be radical, GNOME can't take risks. In short, while GNOME is undergoing a steady evolution, it can't revolutionize anything which could put it's stability or usability at risk.

KDE, on the other hand, can boast being a free desktop. Qt (The cross-platform toolkit it is based on) is now licensed through the GNU LGPL, a free (as in freedom) and open-source license, which makes it the free option of the two. However, that's not what's important; the important part is its evolution. The latest version of KDE was built practically from scratch y the developpers, with no constraints nor pressure from third parties. This meant that KDE could really rethink the desktop. This also meant that KDE 4.0 outraged people, mostly because of its complete lack of stability, but also because it was not what people expected. The KDE developers decided to explore a new path in interface design, for the better or for the worst. The result is what we have today, KDE SC 4.4.

KDE4 is beautiful, powerful, integrated, simple and different.

  • KDE's Oxygen theme is one of the most beautiful themes out there, easily competing with Microsoft Windows' Aero or Apple Mac OS X's Aqua. I'll give the reader the freedom to decide which one is the most beautiful, but the facts are that most people are positively surprised when they experience Oxygen for the first time. Oxygen just feels right. It's clean, simple, and lightweight.
  • KDE's interface is in many sense what I would call "powerful". Qt permits a very clean but modulable panel system applicable to very different tasks and applications, as diverse as the kOffice suite and the Dolphin file browser. This makes Qt applications – both those installed in the default DE Software Compilation those not directly linked to KDE – more efficient than their GTK+ equivalents. In fact, I prefer most major KDE applications to their competitors on all OS's, and I often consider them be the best in their field. Sometimes, though, Some GNOME applications are better than the KDE equivalent. In these cases, I would argue that each and every one of these applications could easily have been written in Qt. The applications belong to GNOME because it is more popular or because it is the developper's choice desktop, not because GTK+ permits the developer to do anything that Qt wouldn't. When a GTK+ application is better, it could have been written in Qt. The opposite is not true.
  • KDE is an example of cross-integration; applications work together, use powerful common libraries, blend in the Plasma desktop seamlessly. KDE is the only open-source desktop that feels truly complete in the same way as Mac OS or Windows feel. There is no different theme of design from one app to the next. When you use a KDE4 application, you know you are using KDE4, and you're happy. I switched to KDE in great part thanks to this feel. I would never have done the same for GNOME, even when I was on Windows XP.
  • KDE is also simple. Since KDE4, the developing team has worked a lot on useability, and that shows. When Ubuntu was created, the choice between GNOME and KDE was the choice between simple applications and confusing ones. Today, KDE applications are generally only slightly more complex, even when they are more empowering. Again, the malleable panel system is great, but clean looks also play a great part in the experience. KDE also decided to hide most buttons by default and tweaked the experience of most apps. KDE is simple and clean, but that without compromising power, efficiency and configurability.
  • That doesn't mean KDE became a Mac OS- or Windows- like environment. KDE is definitively different. It has some details that resemble Windows here and there, but the experience it provides is as unique as any system's. This difference, however, has never been designed simply "to be different". Plasma is different because it is innovative. It created a new way to wey and interact with the desktop. It is different as Linux should be.

KDE is the positive side of Linux. The empowerment of the user. Without the fault it has suffered for so long: the lack of consistency. KDE is what Linux deserves.

The Best of Both Worlds

Ubuntu's mission from the start was to bring a simple Linux distribution to the masses while still remaining different. It has acheived this goal, mainly because GNOME uses a unique interface that is as different to Mac OS and Windows as they are to each other. The same, however, could be said about KDE. Even though it mimics the very basic parts of windows (the "K menu" is close to the "Start menu") it works in a unique way. In fact, the basic outlines of the desktop's layout that can be traced back to Windows can be changed.

There are also parts of GNOME that I love, kubuntu

Ubuntu still lacks a powerful desktop. KDE still lacks simple applications like the Ubuntu Software Center and commercial solutions like the Ubuntu One Music Store. Ubuntu could bring to KDE what it lacks, and vice-versa.

Kubuntu is not enough because it does not bring the Ubuntu experience to KDE. Instead, it simply pastes the KDE Plasma desktop un the Ubuntu OS. Kubuntu does not profit from Ubuntu's efforts on interface design, integration, and extra tools. If we ever want to see that, it is necessary that KDE becomes the default Ubuntu desktop or Kubuntu becomes Canonical's primary OS.

The best short-term solution would be if Canonical would spread its efforts between GNOME and KDE for a few years. Then they could keeps the one that gives them the best result. I am ready to bet much more than what I have that it would be KDE.

Near the end of 2009, I wrote an article telling people to use GNOME, but pray for KDE. KDE has made a lot of progress since then. That article is outdated. It is time that we forget GNOME, and use KDE.


Sometimes I have the impression that Linux is now all about Ubuntu versus KDE and no more about Ubuntu vs. other distros or KDE versus GNOME. It does not have to be that way as there's no logical reason why these two projects should be opposed. If the Ubuntu community was to concentrate its efforts on KDE instead of GNOME, we might finally get what we've been waiting for all along: a really good Linux OS that competes with–and beats–proprietary systems in all respects.

I believe KDE needs Ubuntu, and Ubuntu needs KDE. What do you think?

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