March 24, 2019

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Two Years Ago....

  • July 12, 2000
  • By Dennis E. Powell

Remember the phrase "steep learning curve"? It wasn't all that long ago that whenever the name "Linux" appeared, "steep learning curve" also appeared, as if it were part of the name of the product.

That's not so much the case anymore, thanks--dare I say it? Okay, I will--to KDE, which no matter your opinion of it is as close to a standard desktop as exists in the Linux world. KDE-1.0 was released two years ago today, and it changed everything for many users.

It certainly did for this user.

Way back when--you young whippersnapper! you don't know how hard life used to be!--the Linux desktop was an odd place to be. Most distributions (there were fewer then) signified a successful installation by dumping the hapless user at the command prompt. For dosrivative refugees, this did not impart confidence: there wasn't even a drive letter! You didn't know where you were and you didn't know where you wanted to be. "Steep learning curve" wasn't a description, it was a refuge. If this Linux thing made no sense, well, scores of writers had already said that mere mortals could never hope to figure it out. "Steep learning curve" freed the newbie from the shame of not knowing what he or she was going.

Caldera offered a desktop, called Looking Glass, that was a commercial product that caused Linux to look more or less like Windows 3.x. I remember it fondly, but suspect that this is due to its being the first thing I saw in Linux that had a familiar, finished look to it.

Red Hat installed a whole collection of window managers and desktops, from FVWM and FVWM2 to AfterStep. There was a long and complicated directory tree that I believe was supposed to provide basic configurations for them all. The default desktop looked and acted much like Windows 95. AfterStep was (and is) a gorgeous thing, capable of being configured is a broad variety of ways. It also required the editing of some truly mystifying text files to configure. The restart button was pressed frequently and a few anxious seconds would pass as the user waited to see if a change "took."

There wasn't much standardization of, really, anything. A few icons for specific applications were common across desktops, but mostly no two Linux systems running X looked alike. Absolute mastery of one's own machine counted for absolutely nothing on another machine, insofar as X and desktops based on it were concerned. And the desktop was becoming even more fragmented, with new ones appearing all the time. It was flat-out scary. Someone who wanted to run Linux had to really want to run Linux to endure it all. X-based applications were largely standalone propositions, and there were scads of libraries that needed to be gotten and installed before many of them would work. (Ever spend an evening chasing all over the Web looking for the right version of XForms?)

Along came KDE, and everything changed.

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