January 5, 2005

KDE on Windows? A Platonic dialogue

Author: Tom Chance

Should KDE port its applications to Windows? A debate has flared up in parts of the KDE community, filling inboxes and blogs with arguments long and short. The question is really whether the KDE community should encourage this, since it is alreadyhappening. In the tradition of dialectic, I present the key arguments for and against this venture in style of a Platonic dialogue.

Persuade me, Glaucon, if you will of this need for KDE to port its applications to Microsoft Windows.

Well, Socrates, let me preface my argument by stating that our aim here should be to entice and switch people to free software. Therefore I argue that porting KDE applications to Windows will mean more people will eventually switch to GNU/Linux or another kind of system.

On that aim, my good friend, we can agree, but on the means we cannot.

Well then, I should say in the first place that by porting KDE applications to Windows we would be lowering the barriers to migration. Witness the success of Mozilla's Firefox and of OpenOffice.org's product for evidence of this. Users, and in particular the pointy-haired bosses whose hands control the purse strings of companies, will not be so willing to change all of their software until they have seen for themselves the wonders that we can deliver. Whether Hellenes or barbarians, they shall benefit from the experience also for education, for it is a leap of faith to relearn all of your software in one go. But by introducing certain products to them in the comfortable space of Windows, they can narrow the knowledge gap, and have a considerably easier task when learning GNU/Linux.

I agree with you, for I think you right in the main. But can we not demonstrate the features of KDE on a LiveCD such as Knoppix?

The CDs of which you speak are but a gimmick in the face of native ports that provide the day-to-day functionality people need. Your philosopher or hacker may find virtue in such a disc, but the barbarian will find confusion and unnecessary complexity.

But, said I, do the free software platforms have value beyond their application stack? For the philosopher, perhaps, but not surely for the average user? If only the kernel, GNU toolchain, and system architecture differentiated Windows from GNU/Linux and the BSD family, who would care to switch? What of user inertia?

Ah, Socrates, you underestimate the value of our systems' multiuser capabilities, of the network transparency afforded by KDE, of its Kiosk framework, of the NX application servers, and many more of our architectural features. These, combined with cost benefits and the freedom from vendor lock-in, would surely encourage a mass migration in companies. So too would home users' inertia be overcome by the force of suppliers not shipping Windows by default.

Well then Glaucon, interposed Thrasymachus, you have convinced me of that much. But I worry still that those on Windows would be less likely to contribute to free software projects and to participate in the community. For they shall be without the tools of the trade, and will be less likely to understand their new role in the development of the software they use.

My good friend, replied Glaucon, you forget that if they didn't use free software on Windows, then they wouldn't participate at all. We can heavily promote the message that they can and should participate by, for example, including such a message in the default window or installation program. In fact, I think you shall find considerable participation from proprietary platforms. I take, for my example, The Battle for Wesnoth, whose principal developer recently revealed that he received equal contributions from users of Windows, Mac OS, and GNU/Linux.

At this stage, Socrates paused to consider. There seemed considerable strategic benefit in porting applications to Windows, but there remained something that troubled him: the implausibility of such a strategy.

You forget, Glaucon, he eventually responded, that we are dealing here with Microsoft, which controls the platform onto which we wish to move. With each new release, each platform upgrade, it can kill us off. It needs only to introduce proprietary extensions that we cannot use, and create demand for features we cannot interoperate with, and our applications fall behind. By deploying restrictive licensing on copyrighted code and patented software ideas, it can shut free software out. We are attempting to build on moving ground.

You are quite right, he replied. But we can we not inflict damage before they change the platform?

We may, replied Thrasymachus, but I fear that it will be fruitless, for we will never port all of our applications, and few will compete on grounds of quality with their proprietary competitors without the full architectural advantages KDE on GNU/Linux or a BSD has to offer. How will a user of QuarkXpress receive Scribus, and how will a user of Outlook meet Kontact? Perhaps with contempt or vague interest, I suggest, but not rapture. We should use this window of opportunity before their next platform release to improve our own platform.

Most damaging of all, he continued, will be the message we shall send out to those we wish to attract, that our platform is without virtue, forcing us to port to a superior platform. We will be admitting that they shouldn't switch to GNU/Linux because we cannot compete with Windows, at least in their eyes. And we will lose the opportunity to demonstrate our most compelling architectural advantages.

Listening with admiration, Socrates leaned forward. Glaucon, Thrasymachus, you both speak with truth, but I feel we must bring this to a close before our reader's coffee turns cold. Let us agree, then, that though porting KDE applications to Windows might offer strategic value, it would also open us to Microsoft's cold business practices, and present a damaging admission of our platform's worth.

On that, chorused Glaucon and Thrasymachus, we concede and agree.

But, said Glaucon, there is but one matter left to mention: the strategic benefit of porting audio and video codecs to Windows to gain wider adoption; of Firefox's ability to change Web designers' consideration of Web standards; of OpenOffice.org gaining open format adoption and lessening the impact of Microsoft Office's domination through its closed formats.

With a frown, Socrates stood up and addresses Glaucon directly. My friend, KDE has no such product to port. We may benefit from such efforts elsewhere, and indeed encourage them, but we should not pretend that our platform offers such possibilities. Let us instead lead those stuck in the cave with proprietary software out into the light, where we can demonstrate the higher virtue of our work.

With that, as the sun rose on the horizon, the companions rose and returned to their computers to hack.


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