KDE 4.4 aims to take free desktop skyward

The final release of KDE 4.4 is due in early 2010, and not since the arrival of KDE 4.0 two years ago has an open source desktop environment been so highly anticipated by the free desktop community. Unlike the anti-climax that was the first KDE 4 release, however, KDE 4.4's developers say this new version will actually deliver on many of the original promises of this next-generation desktop environment -- and then some.

See related slideshow: Sneak peek: KDE 4.4 screenshots |

If maturity is the measure of a desktop environment then KDE 4.4 will have a lot to live up to, as it represents the fourth major release of the KDE 4 series.

Many small things that make the user's life easier have been done. . . Those changes might not be significant on their own, but they add up to a system that feels really well roundedSebastian Kugler, KDE spokesperson

With the feature freeze for KDE 4.4 looming in November 2009 -- after which no new features will be added and only bugs will be fixed -- we decided to take a look at what KDE has in store to lift the free desktop to a new paradigm.

Features, updates and bug fixes

Like any major version increase, KDE 4.4 will include numerous feature enhancements, updates and bug fixes.

According to KDE's developers, 4.4 will have an immediate advantage over previous versions by leveraging the latest Qt 4.6 toolkit, which brings a new layout mechanism in QGraphicsView and improved performance, among many other additions. In fact, KDE 4.4.0 was delayed by two weeks until February 2010 to make it possible to release on top of Qt 4.6.

General enhancements include improved desktop search, better privilege escalation, remote controllable Plasma widgets and more polish to the existing code base.

KDE developer and spokesperson for the project, Sebastian Kugler, says it's difficult to determine exact numbers of features, but for 4.4 it would be a very high number.

"4.4 is a significant release that brings many new features. We have new applications, for example Blogilo, a local applications for writing blogs, allowing for offline editing of articles," Kugler says. "There's is a new network manager (living in the notification area right now, a plasmoid for it is planned for later). Also applications that are not directly shipped with KDE are maturing now. Amarok, Digikam, Konversation and all those applications that are well known from their KDE 3 version are now available in a KDE 4 version."

The desktop look-and-feel has also received a makeover. The new Air theme for the Plasma desktop shell is more polished and has added subtle animations to improve the user experience.

"Many small things that make the user's life easier have been done, sometimes something as small as giving feedback from the buttons in the quick launch area of the panel," Kugler says. "Those changes might not be significant on their own, but they add up to a system that feels really well rounded and well done."

A more visible development in Plasma is the new netbook interface, which will also debut as part of KDE 4.4. Plasma-Netbook will sport a mobile computer form-factor for desktop Plasma widgets.

Kugler says there are plenty of interesting changes behind the interface, too. KDE 4.4 will ship an authorization framework based on PolicyKit, so applications and the desktop can elevate privileges safely, and administrators can specify exactly what a specific user is allowed to do.

KDE's developers have also made the desktop more social and "connected". There is a Plasma applet that shows answers to questions from the KDE knowledge base, with the aim of making it easier for new users to find help.

KDE 4.4 will also make it possible to drag content from Web sites onto the desktop. For example, a picture can be dragged it from the Web browser onto the desktop and a Plasma applet showing this picture is added to the desktop where the file was dropped. The wallpaper can also be set this way or from any remote URL.

In addition to new features, Kugler says the KDE team has been busy fixing bugs and improving the overall quality of the existing code.

"We've closed about 18000 bugs over the past 6 months -- so if we match the bug fixing frenzy before 4.3 (I'm quite sure we will), we'll probably have about the same number, maybe we can even get it a bit higher," he says.

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A growing community

If there's one thing the KDE 4 series has done for the project it was raise expectations and generate publicity. With version 4.4 now in the works, there has been no shortage of new contributors to the project. Some 300 new accounts were created for developers over the past year alone.

"We're seeing tremendous growth of the community, and the number of developers and contributors is steadily increasing," Kugler says. "Many sub-projects have grown from a one or two person show to a larger team of developers. So yes, KDE is growing and developing at a really nice pace."

"Will we continue to be able to grow? I hope so, it depends a lot on scalability though."

That scalability requirement involves a plan to move to the Git source code management system; however, a timeframe for the migration of the primary infrastructure and development process has yet to be established.

KDE4 development platform pays dividends

One of the reasons the KDE project decided to begin a new KDE 4 series was to completely overhaul and "modernize" the development libraries and APIs used by the higher-level applications.

According to Kugler, the libraries and frameworks delivered as part of the KDE 4 development platform are already "really paying off".

"We're seeing many great new applications, but also old and well-known candidates making use of all this," he says.

"We do have more in the pipeline, though. In KDE 4.4, the search and semantic desktop features will play a bigger role. There's a new search box integrated in Dolphin, the file manager, so you can search directly from that. In the background, it uses Nepomuk, so all the information in the desktop search index is actually stored across all applications."

"If you tag an image in your image viewer, the tag becomes visible in your desktop search. That's how it should be, right?"

On the frameworks side, 4.4 will introduce a new storage mechanism for the semantic desktop, based on Virtuoso. This should solve most of the performance problems experienced with the Nepomuk data store.

A new library dubbed "libattica" and the backend functionality for social computing have also been added to the main libraries for KDE 4.4. This means that every application will be able to access social desktop features transparently, without having to individually take care of necessities like authentication, different service providers and the REST protocol. Next, developers want to see more KDE apps integrate social desktop features.

When released in January 2008, KDE 4.0 received criticism for a release that did not have all the functionality of the previous KDE 3 series, but with 4.4 essentially being the "fifth generation" of the KDE 4 series, Kugler says the whole KDE 4 vision is finally coming together.

"I think KDE really is in a transition phase between re-implementing all those nice things users were used to already," Kugler says. "With KDE 4.3, we have pretty much caught up with the level of functionality we offered previously, built on top of the new KDE libraries."

"We did manage to do all that with much less complex user interfaces, so it might not seem as feature-rich as KDE 3, but it definitely matches its level, and goes beyond what we had in KDE 3 in many areas."

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Whether full-feature parity between KDE 3 has been reached yet will be debated among the users for some time, but Kugler says the 4 series is now going beyond what was possible in KDE 3.

"We now have way more graphical capabilities, due to our compositing manager and the animation and graphics capabilities in Qt 4.6, the framework KDE 4.4 will be based on," he says.

"We do not expect users to have the latest and greatest machines though. KDE still runs well on low-end hardware and it nicely degrades to match what the machine is capable of. I think this is a very important thing, since not all machines out there support compositing and openGL (and maybe they never will)."

KDE 4’s default theme, Oxygen, is also getting new animation features. Graphic designer Nuno Pinheiro has added new effects for active-inactive transitions -- where the window appears more prominent when the mouse pointer is hovered over it -- and likewise for window buttons.

Web and communication technology continues to evolve

KDE has a long history of Web technology development, including the KHTML rendering engine (which became WebKit) and the Konqueror Web browser.

However, since KDE 4 arrived the project’s main browser offering has languished behind modern alternatives like Firefox, Safari and, more recently, Google's Chrome. Kugler says there will not be a new Web browser in KDE 4.4 because Konqueror is still based on KHTML.

"We did, however, have kdewebkit merged into KDE 4.4 just days ago," he says. "Those are the first bits of WebKit landing in KDE. There is also a KPart (a technology that allows components of applications to integrate in other applications) for WebKit which can just replace the KHTML KPart."

This KPart is a work in progress, and most likely won't make it into KDE 4.4 due to the last major blockage -- integration with KDE’s secure password store, KWallet.

On the communications side, KDE became popular for providing a rich suite of PIM and groupware applications under the Kontact umbrella. According to Kugler, the PIM applications shipped with KDE 4.3 were ports of their KDE 3 counterparts -- with a couple of years worth of bug fixes -- but in 4.4, the first applications using Akonadi, the new shared groupware cache, are due to arrive.

Akonadi uses plug-ins to push and pull data from various sources. It supports different e-mail protocols, groupware servers and file formats.

"[Akonadi] offers a standardized interface, including transparent caching, to applications that want to integrate this data," Kugler says, adding this feature is "already available".

"For KDE 4.4, we'll have our address book rewritten on top of Akonadi as well as our calendar. KDE 4.5 will see the port to Akonadi completed with all relevant applications, including Kontact, on top of Akonadi."

Kugler sees the Akonadi port as being quite advanced, but the developers prefer to take another release cycle to make sure the migration goes smoothly and that Kontact-Akonadi is "rock stable" when users get it.

KDE 4.4 is scheduled for release on February 9, 2010.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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