Developers of the open-source KDE desktop environment have responded to the ongoing controversy around their handling of the transition from KDE 3 to the current generation of the system, KDE 4, which began with the release of KDE 4.0 in January.
Along with Gnome, KDE is one of the two most widely used desktop environments for Linux and Unix systems. With the KDE 4 series, developers shifted the system from the Qt 3 application-development framework to Qt 4, while rebuilding the desktop environment from scratch.
The resulting software has been criticised by users on open-source mailing lists for its lack of features and customisability, bugs and usability problems. Some have suggested including older versions of KDE alongside KDE 4 or even creating a new system based on KDE 3.5 but ported to the Qt 4 framework.
KDE board member Sebastian Kügler admitted that KDE developers were surprised by the vehemence and persistence of KDE 4's critics.
"As we firmly believe in KDE 4 and the future of the free desktop, we expected the heated discussions about KDE 4, and especially the 4.0 release, to go away, and we were wrong about that," he wrote in an open letter published on the open-source news website Groklaw.
The problems are largely due to inflated expectations of KDE 4, something KDE developers had attempted to address ahead of the release, he said.
KDE 4.0 was never intended to be a full replacement for KDE 3, but was released in January in order to give KDE 4 application developers a stable platform to develop to, Kügler said. "Not releasing 4.0 at that point means holding back hundreds of application developers from porting and releasing their applications," he wrote.
Version 4.0 of the system was intended to lay foundations for a system that would be able to add functions that would have been difficult or impossible to build onto the ageing KDE 3 platform, Kügler said. "The new features and frameworks need some time to be implemented in a user-visible way," he wrote. "The merit of the infrastructural work that has led up to 4.0 will be seen in the coming releases, with KDE 4.1 showing first signs of an increased pace of development, thanks to the new foundations."
KDE 4.1 is currently in beta testing and is due for a final release at the end of July. While Kügler reiterated that KDE 4.0 and 4.1 will not yet be functionally equivalent to KDE 3.5, the situation has put some users in a quandary because KDE 4 is nevertheless replacing KDE 3 in some distributions. For example, KDE 4 will be used in version 10 of Red Hat's Fedora distribution, because of the technical impossibility of continuing to support KDE 3.5 as well as the newer system, according to remarks posted to the Fedora mailing list.
Fedora users who need features found only in KDE 3.5 will be forced to either continue using Fedora 9 or to use Fedora 10 with another desktop manager, such as Gnome, according to comments on the list. "KDE 4.0 is not an improvement, when functionality is lost from the previous revision and it's not documented," wrote Fedora user Maximilian Bianco on the list.
The difficult transition is partly the result of a compromise between creating usable software and keeping developers happy, according to Kügler. Technically, the code of KDE 3.5 could have been ported without change to Qt 4, but this would have been years of labour that, for developers, would have felt pointless, he said.
The prospect of reinventing the software was needed to entice developers to contribute to the effort of moving to the new development framework, he said. "The development of KDE 4 has been slower than it would've been if we were able or willing to force developers to work on whatever some top-down managers think is good... but that's just not how Foss (free and open-source software) works," Kügler wrote.
He urged users to refrain from "insulting, whining" and "spreading FUD" in order to try and get their way with KDE developers. "A common understanding of acceptable and effective behaviour in communicating with developers is expected, especially considering that the developers do not have an obligation to help and usually do it voluntarily," he wrote.