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.comment: The Desktop? The Desktop!

The Realm of the Unexpected

  • July 18, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

One thing that can't be denied about the Linux universe: It's never short of surprises.

Some of them are bad, as in the reports this week that gave rise to the mental image of a cartoon in which one William Gates III was dressed as an organ grinder, standing there grinding his organ and looking on approvingly as a little monkey danced and collected coins for him in a colorful tin cup. About which I have no more to say -- freedom means the ability to do whatever you want to do with anyone who will agree to do it with you, but it also means my ability to think of the whole enterprise as superfluous.

Some of them are good, such as what I found when I opened my latest build -- code from about a week ago -- of KWord. It is now not just usable but nice to use. It is not utterly complete, but as I write this in it I'm developing an affection for the thing. This is important. Here's why.

Time was, a word processor was either a word processor or Word Perfect, a fiendishly clever scheme whereby lawyers, who were just about the only ones who used it, could justify inflating their billable hours. ("You don't think it took 59 hours just to type up your will? Well, okay, you try to do it. Here's our word processor. Good luck.") There were a few advanced features, but nothing that couldn't be figured out by anyone bright enough not to end up dancing for Bill Gates. But word processors have grown far more complicated. They offer all kinds of things, often hidden in obscure places. Some actually require you to learn a programming language and cook up your own features.

This flexibility is on the whole laudable, but one of its side effects is that choosing a word processor has become a major commitment, because to take full advantage of it there's a lot to learn. KWord, in my view, has reached the level of development where it is now worthy of that commitment. Problem is, for the most part it doesn't really require that commitment. For instance, a moment ago I thought I'd take a look to see if there is a word count available, one feature out with which I cannot live. It was the very first place I looked (File > Statistics) and it worked.

(This isn't to say that there is nothing to learn, or that it does everything in a way that I like. The opening screen, which demands that a layout be chosen, is annoying to me, as is its inability to remember a zoom ratio. It would be great if one were able to establish a default format and zoom level and have KWord open to it when you click its icon -- when one sits down to write, it's writing, not working the controls of a word processor, that's in mind. It can always get prettified later.)

KWord, zoomed to 150 percent and entering text in Serifa-12 with anti-aliasing on and a screen resolution of 1600x1200 is just about as pleasant an experience as I've had since my days of DeScribe under OS/2. I'm starting to really like it, and have the feeling that it will be my word processor of choice until further notice. I'll write more about it when I've dug deeper into it, but for now I think it's safe to say that KWord is just about there.

As is most of KDE-2.2, based on the code I built last week. (The KDE-2.2 "hard freeze" went into effect Monday, so except for a little polishing it's pretty much done, with release scheduled for next month. It's perfectly usable right now. I should note that KOffice is not distributed as part of KDE itself, which means in practical terms that the two are on different release schedules.) The first things an upgrader will notice are a little blinking icon that attaches itself to the mouse pointer when an application is opened, designed to say that the application is enroute (I didn't like this at first, but have come either to like it or at least not to mind it as much), and a new and nifty file selection dialog which provides a preview of the document under consideration, which I like a great deal.

Gone, sadly, is Mosfet's Pixie image management system. I understand the things that led to its being withdrawn, but I liked it and grew used to it and am sorry that it's no longer there. Other users, I suspect, will agree.

A feature that KDE already has but doesn't exploit fully is one that I encountered this week when I built an application that doesn't make use of it.

The application is KOnCD (Did I get the capitalization right? Lemme check. Yup.), which is what seems to me to be the most advanced of the several KDE front ends for cdrecord. It's a nice app, and is or soon will be a likely choice for those looking for a KDE alternative to Xcdroast, which has become at GTK+ application. And it must be run as root.

As with current Xcdroast, setting the KOnCD executable UID does not allow mere users to use it; instead, it gives everyone an error message. There are of course ways around this, with wrappers or a special group, and these are things that one cannot expect someone new to Linux and KDE to want to dive into just to get the CD burner working. Nor is KOnCD the only KDE application that when installed shows up in everyone's menu even though only root can run it.

There's a simple solution, and I'm surprised it hasn't been utilized at the base desktop level. The K menu has an item, System > File Manager (Super User Mode), that produces a dialog which prompts the user for the superuser password (it will even save the password if you want; a Very Bad Idea, I think). There is a similar entry to open an su konsole, though I don't know why, because typing "su" and the password is easier than going traipsing through menus, and faster. The point is, everything is in place for a very elegant way of getting to applications that must be run as root. Why not make it part of the API for all apps that need root privileges or, if it's already documented, why are developers not using it? As it is, KOnCD is on my menu, but to use the thing I have to open a console, give X screen privileges to root, su root, then type "koncd." Kind of defeats the purpose of putting it on the menu, don'cha think?

Minor stuff. Pretty neat, really, when one can write 1,100 words about a new word processor and the worst things he can find about a beta desktop, and the phrase "crashes all the time" doesn't appear even once. Nor has KDE-2.2, in any of its development forms, crashed here. Even once.

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