Posted by Calixte Pictet | 6 comments
Use GNOME, Pray for KDE
Ok, I’m sure the Linux crowd out there is sick and tired of all this KDE vs. GNOME nonsense. The rest don’t care or don’t even know what all this is about. The debate is important because the diverging philosophies behind these two desktops provide the user with two diverging experiences. Of course, the final conclusion depends on the users’ tastes, but this isn’t going to be about my tastes. Actually, I’m not even going to defend the environment I’m using to write this article.
For the non-Linux crowd out there, here’s the problem. Contrarily to Mac OS or Windows, Linux does not provide a GUI (Graphical User Interface). If you use a Linux, you’ll have a choice of three Desktop Environments and many more Window Managers. There is not one dominating environment out there but actually two: GNOME and KDE. These two have been a source of infighting in the Linux camp for years. Each side has it’s adepts, each has it’s haters.
Mark Shuttleworth’s choice of the GNOME desktop environment for the famed “Linux for human beings” (i.e. Ubuntu) was not a bad one. On the contrary, it was perfect. GNOME provided simplicity and stability to the end user. Let’s face it, when we use computers, our chief concern is to make things work fast and without effort so we can go on and do something else. That’s what GNOME is about.
Not KDE. KDE was always about empowering the user. Configuration in KDE 3 was ten times what any GNOME user could have dreamed of. You could configure both useful and useless things to your heart’s content. That’s not bad per se, on the contrary, but it also means they had to make some sacrifices in simplicity and stability. KDE was the dominant desktop, until Ubuntu came along. Ubuntu’s goal was to enable simple “human beings” (as opposed to geeks) to use Linux. They may not be able to harness the full power of the OS, but at least they had a free system that worked for them. KDE would have been a horrible choice.
Some argue that things have changed: KDE 4 is out. They haven’t. Don’t get me wrong, KDE 4 is a great desktop alternative, and is probably way better than GNOME. It’s interface is innovative (except the K menu, but more about that later), beautiful (the Oxygen theme kicks ass), and powerful. Even better, KDE is not hard to use. I’ll go even further: a lot of Windows users that are scared of change will feel more at home in KDE. I’ve tested out KDE for the last couple of days and I have to admit I’m impressed. “Plasmoids”, as they call them, are not merely widgets with a new name as I had expected, but a new way of interpreting the desktop metaphor. Overall, KDE is better than GNOME. Way better.
So should Ubuntu change roads and go KDE? Should their efforts be invested in the K desktop environment rather than developing GNOME? I don’t think so. I may love KDE, but I’m not a convert yet. GNOME is ugly, especially the way Ubuntu is distributing it, but it’s stable. It’s usability beats all other environments I’ve used hands down and even if it’s completely different, the learning curve for any new user is easy to come by.
KDE is beautiful, but it still needs polishing. Plasmoids (KDE’s desktop widgets) made me view my desktop in a new light, but they still have stability issues. The integrated desktop effects are the way to go, but they need to become stable if they are to be used on a daily basis. Bruce Byfield from Datamation is right when he says KDE has the “evolutionary advantage”, but unless they can provide us with a stable and simple DE, they’ll stay second place. The Linux desktop is slowly shifting towards less technologically inclined users, and that’s all to GNOME’s advantage.
Ubuntu should stick to GNOME for now. It is a distribution aimed at the non-technically inclined. Most people don’t care if Dolphin (KDE’s file browser) is more powerful than Nautilus (GNOME’s file browser). Most people won’t even see the difference. What they will see however is a plethora of customizable options, buttons that they don’t want. Some people might argue that “they don’t know they want them”, but the truth is that, however useful all these functions may be, the “human beings” that Ubuntu is aiming at don’t care about being efficient, doing things the best way or knowing about their computer. They want things to “just work”. GNOME provides that. Click on applications, the category, then the app you want. Simple. Applications don’t come with weird icons that represent obscure functions (the different available panels in Dolphin count as “obscure functions by the way). Ubuntu, or any Linux distribution who wants to keep things simple, should stay on GNOME. If people have different tastes, they can always try Kubuntu.
That said, most newcomers to Linux prefer KDE. The plasma widgets are really useful, the interface is beautiful and KDE applications are generally better than their GNOME equivalent. I myself am a power user, and having more options at my fingertips counts as a good thing. However, even for me, KDE is not perfect. Plasma is buggy: I had some plasmoids crash from time to time, or simply not displaying any information. The desktop effects are somewhat lacking: they don’t feel as fluid as Compiz-Fusion’s and are rarely as responsive or as beautiful. The default main menu is cluttered and incomprehensible: it takes inspiration from a bad example (Windows’ “Start Menu”) without being as simple to use.
I would consider KDE 4 to be still in beta phase. They certainly could: KDE’s main applications are still in beta themselves and are not quite usable. Take KOffice for example. A lot of thought went into creating a new interface, and the results are looking great, but a productivity application that simply crashes randomly cannot be distributed. Sure, they don’t, but they should follow the same philosophy for the whole KDE desktop. Konqueror is a great browser, but KHTML is still lacking. Until Konqueror switches to Webkit or KHTML is ready, it should be considered “under development”. That is the philosophy that should direct the whole project if it is to become an alternative for regular Windows and Mac OS users.
KDE is the way of the future in my opinion. If it isn’t, then it certainly is more than GNOME.
So best of luck KDE4, I sincerely hope you will be the one. You’ve proven that innovation can come from the open source world. Now prove us that it doesn’t have to come at the expense of a fluid, stable and simple user experience. For now, I’ll stick to GNOME, but I hope it won’t take long for my decision to switch to be justified.
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