In The Beginning There was a Desktop ...
KDE wasn't always the shiniest tool in the shed. While KDE 1 certainly looked more coherent and generally nicer than most things on UNIX or Linux at the time, it wasn't .. you know .. gorgeous. Things got better over time, certainly, but with KDE 4 some of us decided to try something new and consciously grow the focus of KDE development to include a few key traits we'd been lacking.
At the end of March in 2005 a bunch of people (15, if I recall correctly) gathered for an ad-hoc meeting in Berlin, Germany. There were artists, usability experts, developers, business managers and users. We all had one thing in mind: the future of KDE.
The meeting was by private invite and kept quiet until it was over. This pissed some people off, and rightfully so. KDE's inner culture wasn't as transparent then as it is now, and that showed in this case. But more than anything else, the people organizing it were concerned that it might fail completely ... or succeed in ways we couldn't imagine. It was such a wild experiment that nobody knew how it would turn out.
(Side note .. I do wish they'd carried it out in a more transparent manner from the start and had a bit more confidence in the whole process, but it was a good lesson for everyone. The greater transparency in general in KDE since that era is a nice sign of progress.)
... And Then We Took Berlin
Besides a cute wiki and a beautiful logo, what did we emerge with from that meeting? Well, a few projects that you might have heard of got their start there: Oxygen, Marble and Plasma to name three. Some usability innovations, such as solutions for the select-with-single-click-activation dilemma, also emerged during that meeting.
I summed the results up this way in the wrap-up story for theDot:
"This first APPEAL meeting provided a hot-house for focused, interdisciplinary KDE development. Looking forward, the group aims to grow organically in scope as others with a similar drive for realizing visual beauty, interface clarity and technical creativity in KDE come together. Additional APPEAL meetings are already being planned."
KDE already had a reputation for technical excellence at the framework level, showing prescience with DCOP (later inspiring D-Bus), KParts, KStandardDirs (leading eventually to Kiosk user and group management) and much more. We wanted to add "excellence at the interface level" to that, and to accomplish that we listened to users large and small, usability experts and artists.
We defined targets like "visual beauty", "interface clarity", "interdisciplinary development" and "technical creativity" nearly three and a half years ago as goals for KDE 4. We then set about to spread this meme throughout KDE.
We took an arguably slower bottom-up approach to this because we wanted the results to be sustainable and honest, not a splash of paint that gets done once in a hurry and then forgotten about, left to pixel-rot away over the years. We also didn't want to risk creating schisms in the various project teams in the process. This is the principle of "don't break what's working to fix what's broken".
The Results Are (Coming) In
When you look at what is going on today in KDE it's evident that we've been largely successful in getting this meme embedded in the DNA of the KDE team.
From in-application animations and window compositing to SVG theming and canvas centric applications to a much greater sensitivity towards usability issues it's become pervasive and noticeable. That is a success everyone involved with KDE is responsible for equally, not just the few people who trekked to Berlin in '05 and certainly not just the programmers.
(Speaking of programmers, we're still rocking the frameworks side of life with things like Solid, Phonon, ThreadWeaver and Nepomuk, of course.)
We are still working on coordinating all fronts equally well, but the jump in both looks and functionality between KDE 3.5 and KDE 4.1 are pretty compelling. While there are a few features in KDE 3.5 that aren't in 4.1, there are many, many more features that are in 4.1 which aren't in 3.5.
As for visuals, the two releases don't even compare: it's Apples to oranges (excuse the pun ;) with 4.1 being widely hailed as visually more satisfying. It's also more themable, brandable and adjustable than KDE 3 ever was despite the streamlining.
The jump from 4.0 to 4.1 to the bleeding edge development going into 4.2 right now clearly defines the vector we're on: a near vertical climb skywards.
Why this topic now?
I'm talking about this right now because there has been a growing murmur about beauty in Free software of late:
Mark Shuttleworth put out a call to make the user experience of desktop Linux even "prettier" than that of Apple's Mac OS.'
Analyst Stephen O'Grady agrees with Mark, and even notes that he wrote about this exact issue back in March of '06 in a blog entry entitled "Pretty is a Feature".
In one KDE 4.1 review written by Darryl Taft for eWeek, two and two were put together when Darryl wrote: 'Perhaps KDE is working toward that goal.'
And so we finally get to the punchline: Yes, we are working towards that goal.
We started building the necessary momentum and support structure for this push three and a half years ago when we we set for ourselves a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) at the Appeal meeting:
"Put people in front of two machines: one running KDE and the other MacOS. Let them experience both options from log in to shut down, and have them leave wanting KDE."
Are we there yet? I don't have empirical data to point to (though I personally feel "not yet"), but I think we're getting damn close. Most importantly we have the right mindset and the right trajectory to meet that BHAG. That's something very few other software projects can say with similar confidence right now, F/OSS or otherwise.
And this is why KDE is so valuable in the F/OSS ecosystem: we have a culture of anticipating the needs of the near future and working on quality solutions for them before most people even wake up to the issue.
Be Free .. (To Sell KDE)
Now if this sounds like I'm trying to sell the Shuttleworths, O'Gradys and Tafts of the world on our vision and our team, you're right. There it is, I've said it openly. =)
We have something hot going on: something that scales up and down the hardware spectrum, something that is looking sexier practically by the minute, and something that is built for the future ... something that we have oodles more room to explore within and well laid plans for executing on that.
Most importantly, the ability to create that "something" is part of our culture right alongside "make great library frameworks".
That culture is precisely what the F/OSS desktop needs right now, and we should be building our successes on it together.
p.s. Maybe it's time for a second (more open) Appeal meeting.