There are many reasons given for desktop Linux not "taking off". Some are accurate, others considerably less so. One of the challenges we face with KDE is creating a meaningful, visible brand that people value and relate to on an emotional level.
Those of us in the F/OSS community have already built that kind of relationship with F/OSS brands: we see, desire, often straight out breathe the message of Freedom in technology, and go to bat for our favorites. Not everyone will get that, however, and not everyone cares.
We make our life harder than it needs to be in the quest to build brand. We have a small visible market share right now, even when the total of our deployments is summed up. Yes, we have huge deployments in the education sector, have made terrific inroads into private and public offices and have annual global retail sales rivaling Apple's but these deployments are both limited in their visibility and geographically bound (meaning: we are doing a lot better in, say, Brazil than in the USA).
From a brand building perspective, something that people can recognize on a billboard, during a cameo in a T.V. show or "on that guy's laptop on the other side of the coffee shop" is pretty important. Achieving this requires design that has a positive impact at an emotional level and that is applied consistently.
We are at a moment in time where we have just enough market share that we could achieve some great strides forward over the next few years ... if we pulled together.
What KDE Has Done To Date
The KDE community has spent a lot of time and effort putting together things like the Oxygen icons and themes. This was done with the hope that we could build a common visual language, at least for the KDE software in the world and maybe even for some of the other F/OSS apps out there. We certainly did not put as much time and effort in the past into art and presentation as we have with KDE 4 (I think it shows) and this is a big part of the reason why.
We even put ourselves through rather painful transitions like changing all our icon names to the freedesktop.org naming scheme. Thankfully we have great text processing tools to work with in UNIX-land, but still ... hunting through several million lines of code and changing all the icon names in there isn't trivial. Then we had to retrofit all our existing icon themes. These are the sorts of changes that do not add any (user visible) useful features or fix any "big" bugs .. and that's if you get it right; it can cause problems if you get it wrong.
We also introduced things like the branding.svg file that allows someone to pop in their logos and web links and have them show up automatically in places one might expect some branding to be, such as in the launcher window that pops up when you click on the Kickoff button, without the need for patching the source code.
The new emphasis on and effort put into these kinds of things was made specifically to increase our competitive edge with the proprietary offerings out there, and that included a marketing angle. We continue to spend great amounts of time on our choice in wallpapers or widget stylings, and we've gotten them to the point in 4.3 where they are, by all accounts, pretty stunning.
They are also visually identifiable from a distance with just a glance, without being off-putting to the user (quite the opposite, in my experience). This is not by accident.
However, it's not much good if all the work that we collaborate on and house upstream is not used downstream and therefore passed on to the user. We instead end up with N different visual identities - where N approximates the number of distributions out there - and a continued identity crisis for the F/OSS desktop.
What The F/OSS Community Is Doing
Unfortunately, in the F/OSS world we like to build little fences around our plots of land and then design the gardens in them like the unique little acres of wonder we feel they are. This is natural and expected: the people creating F/OSS systems take as much pride in their final product as anyone else and wish to mark it as "that thing I've done". Similarly, companies wish to push their own brand for commercial purposes. Neither set of motivations is wrong or unnatural, but they are hurting us right now more than they are helping.
The truth is that none of the F/OSS operating systems, not even the Linux ones, have enough individual market share to press out a meaningful visual brand image. Even with the most successful brand creation efforts amongst the distributions with countless millions thrown into it, it's all still just "Red Hat versus Novell versus Canonical versus Mandriva versus FreeBSD versus..." and near-zero real-world brand identifiability.
Which is to say: we have made it hard for people to take notice of what we are doing with the Linux Desktop since none of the brands are identifiable as "belonging to the same thing". Instead we end up with microbrands that nearly no one outside of the server room or the hardcore F/OSS community recognizes.
Many (most?) operating systems bearing KDE packages come with their own logo as the application launcher button, many ship their own icon sets or their own (for branding purposes) customizations of the default icon set, many ship their own wallpapers, many change the default window borders or widget themes.
This is even more unfortunate because there is a scarcity of quality artists in the F/OSS world, and when each distribution or project gobbles up one of them to work exclusively on their own mojo ... we just divide and conquer ourselves.
While this may make their individual believers-in-the-cause users happy and may make corporate management feel they are getting some good corporate marketing out there with that happy little logo in the bottom left hand corner ... this is obviously inspired by the "old way" of doing things that is centered around corporate balkanization of the consumer space: flags or fruits, right? (Microsoft and Apple .. :) We need to rise above that and consider the long term benefits of the entire ecosystem because each of our projects thrives or diminishes in step with it.
Right now, it's almost tragic how we feel ourselves to be so rich and so well established that we can afford N different art teams creating N different visual identities. It's time to wake up from that quaint dream so we can take on reality.
What Can We Do?
So how do we remove barriers that stand in the way of improving the situation? Whatever we do (if we do anything), it will be a one-step-a-time process, surely. Thankfully we are usually a patient and hard working lot in F/OSS. We're also a group made up mostly of people who understand the concept of "meeting people half-way".
John F. Kennedy famously said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can for your country." So starting with 4.3, KDE is putting together a small service for KDE distributors (that hopefully one day could turn into a big service, maybe even one that is eventually funded by benevolent forces out there) where we will help others customize the default elements of the KDE visual appearance to suit their needs. We are starting with something simple and achievable: wallpapers.
Why wallpapers? It's a single set of images (so relatively low overhead for us) and it's also what takes up a huge portion of the screen upon log-in and dominates screenshots in review articles.
Eventually it would be great if we could come up with a shared logo for the launcher menu button, manageable customizations in the desktop widget theme, commitment to a standard window border and further usage of branding.svg. We need to start somewhere, however, and to build a working art relationship.
How Will This Service Work?
If you provide a KDE distribution (defined as "a set of KDE binary packages or means to distribute them that includes at least kdelibs and kdebase”) and would like to collaborate with us on this, we will work with you to bring your logo and/or color scheme into our default wallpaper(s).
The quid-pro-quo is this: you commit to setting that wallpaper as the default in your KDE 4.3 (or whatever version is next at that time) packages. The logo and colour scheme work will be done in coordination with your art director(s) (if you have such a person or team) so that it does indeed make sense with your visual identity, but it needs to be based on the upstream defaults. (And yes, the defaults do not include a KDE logo. ;)
We only have so many artists ourselves, so we will operate on a first-come-first-served basis along with some prioritization based on size of user base for the "close ties" in request timing. If you, as a KDE distribution, would like to donate some of your art team's time to helping customize our wallpapers for your look, that'd be great too. (We don't expect your artists to work on images for other distributions; we're looking and hoping for enlightened, not purely altruistic, gestures here. :)
If this works out, then we can extend and expand the program together over time to include other visual elements that we can all agree on.
This is indeed a simple plan with open questions remaining, but it starts to address the issue. We are open to and desire feedback from distributors regarding how this could work right now and how it could evolve over time: the better we understand the needs and patterns of others, the better we can make this program work out together.
... and what's the goal again?
The desired result is the ability to build a visually identifiable F/OSS desktop brand together, one that fits nicely with your brand as well. This way people can continue to say, "Oh hey, that's $COMPANY $NAME Linux" while giving the human population half a chance to build a relationship with F/OSS itself as a visually identifiable thing.
In short: the goal is to increase our net effect in the market by working together.
It's Big Picture thinking, and I hope you will invite us to join your efforts.
So What Can I do?
Remember Aesop's words that he wrote with so much wisdom so long ago: together we stand, divided we fall.
If you are an artist, consider getting involved and help us make beautiful art! (kde-artists at kde dot org is the email address you're looking for ;)
If you are a KDE distributor, contact us so we can include you. (kde-artists at kde dot org, or if you want to start out a bit more cautiously/quietly then aseigo at kde dot org wil reach me privately)
If you are a KDE user who feels this is a good idea: spread the word. Blog, microblog, copy pieces of this blog without apology, write to your KDE distributor about this issue so they are aware of it ....
Together we can build a shared and identifiable brand with great value that we all benefit from.