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.comment: Lawyers, Guns, and Money

KDE and Corel: Working in the Real World

June 14, 2000

I'm reminded of a Peanuts cartoon from 35 years ago or so.

"I'm very idealistic," says Lucy. "I want to make the world a better place for me to live in." She was speaking, in delicious irony, to her little brother, if my recollection is accurate. Her little brother was named Linus.

This cheerful childhood memory was dragged kicking and screaming from the cobweb-veiled storage areas of my mind as I considered something that I think has the potential to become a very serious concern in Linuxland: the role of commercial software vendors in the development of open-source programs. Is it altruism or self-interest? And is there anything wrong with it if it's the latter?

A number of companies have become involved in development of particular open-source applications and packages. The involvement has included monetary support, payment of salaries to programmers already working on free Linux applications, development and contribution of new features or extensions (I'm talking about features and extensions that are then returned, open source, to the projects, not the always-helpful Microsoft seizing upon the Kerberos code, making it incompatible, and slamming a proprietary lid on it), or actually hiring programmers to work under the aegis of the company itself on particular packages, the code going to the open source organization that originated the packages. The dominant view is that this is generally a good thing.

And it can be. But it can also become a bad thing, and unless some lines are drawn, it's a sure bet that it will.

As what follows unfolds, it will seem very much as if I'm portraying some of the players as villains. I am not. Repeat: I am not. I am very specifically making no accusations. Nor am I saying that anyone isn't a villain. Instead, I'll illustrate a couple of examples of companies working with the development of KDE. We'll hear from those companies and from leaders in the noncommercial aspects of Linux. We'll hear from a leader within KDE itself.

And then we'll ponder the potential for something to go terribly wrong.

KDE and Corel
Corporate involvement in KDE is nothing new. Many of the developers of KDE have gone on to work at Mandrake or SuSE, some having jobs that amount to subsidizing their work on KDE. Red Hat's Preston Brown has contributed much to KDE. Caldera hosts some of KDE's ftp service, and one of the quickest mirrors for ftp transfer of up-to-date KDE code is at VA Linux.

But there is a distinction to be made between this and the involvement of, for example, Corel Corporation. Last year Corel introduced its own Linux distribution, becoming, I believe, the first company already producing software for other platforms to do so. It made business sense--Corel has applications to sell, and producing a Linux distribution on which to run them was a smart move.

Corel Linux is based on the Debian distribution and employs a variation on KDE as its front end. (Ironically, Debian is the one distribution that does not view KDE as free software, due to arcana in the interaction among the GPL, the LPGL, and the QPL of the free edition of the Qt libraries.) The porting of some of Corel's applications was done by compiling the existing Windows API code against the WINE libraries.

When it was shipped late last summer, some in the KDE world noticed, not entirely happily, that Corel had changed the names of some of the applications on the menus, had configured KDE to look and act as much as possible like Windows 95/98, had added a file manager that was a clone of the Windows Explorer, and had peppered the product with the Corel copyright.

Then Corel became involved in KDE development.

"We have also finally hired a full-time UI designer for KDE to help you folks with any UI design issue," wrote Corel's Ming W. Poon to the KDE developers on April 1. "His name is Tom Heferek and he is a very senior UI designer with lots of experience. However, he is new to Linux and KDE so give him some time to ramp up and he will join the KDE look & feel group as soon as he settles in. (He only started with us two days ago.) It took us almost 6 months to find a good and experienced UI designer for KDE."

Now. There are those who think that the KDE developers have done a pretty good job at developing the user interface, thanks, and that problems are raised very effectively by users--open source is always in development, and KDE has lots of beta (and pre-beta) testers. But here a company that, for perfectly good business reasons, wants its Linux distribution to behave as much as possible like Windows has hired a UI designer with no Linux or open-source experience to be a "UI designer for KDE." Is it unreasonable to at least wonder if there might be a conflict of interest here?

The issue was raised at the time, and the answer given was that KDE's other developers were in no way obligated to accept the changes suggested by their new assistant at Corel.

Then, toward the end of May, something called "Linux QA," which had a corel.com email address, started posting bug reports to KDE. Scores of them--142 in one two-day period in early June. Many of them have to do with look-and-feel issues.

"Changing file types is an advanced feature, and it should not be so easily accessible from a right-click menu," said one, on June 9. "A new user could easily handicap his or her system by accidentally playing around with settings without a clear understanding of their purpose." A bug? What here isn't working as designed? Or a dumbing down of KDE? Is there a single case of any KDE user ever "handicapping his or her system" by slapdash changing of file types?

Other items reported as "bugs" have included: The location of the addressbook in KMail, the lack of the OK button being the default, the use of "OK," "Done," or "Dismiss" instead of "Close" to dismiss informational popups, the lack of a "keyboard shortcut" to delete icons from the desktop (can you say "easily handicap his or her system"?), and on and on.

Even greater in number are the items reported as bugs but that are internally listed as "wishlist" items. These include merging KWrite and KEdit (after all, there's no real difference between a simple text editor and a programmer's editor, right?), as well as scads of items that Corel would simply like to see changed.

Many of the suggestions are perfectly valid. Some are piddling but valid. But what if, having reported these hundreds of "bugs," Corel's developers set about "fixing" them and closing the bug reports? Could it not be argued that this would be a way to steer KDE in a direction that pleases Corel's interests, which msy or may not coincide with those of the user, or those of code writers who have slaved away, more often than not for free, in producing the applications that are being altered?

There is another area of potential conflict: KOffice. As the purveyor of a commercial office suite for Linux, it is hard to imagine that Corel wishes KOffice well.

"I am only chiming in because nobody else mentioned this," wrote a poster to the KDE developers mailing list last November, in response to an offer of help from Corel, " but I think if you could help with MS Word .doc file converters for koffice and maybe add converters for wordperfect, koffice and Corel Office would profit from this. The idea: Put your filters for proprietary binary formats (like Word) under the GPL (or other Open Source License) and watch them improve...." There was no response from Corel, and Corel has steered clear of KOffice.

It is generally agreed within the KDE community that Corel's involvement is good for KDE overall. Stephan "Coolo" Kulow is one of the leading, longtime KDE developers; his opinion seems typical. And, he notes, companies can alter KDE without KDE's blessing.

"Well, there is no doubt that KDE benefits from this very much," he told me. "Right now the situation is good as all involved companies seem to see that the only chance to get KDE right is to work together. But as you might notice, adminstration of the system is left out of KDE completely as each company has its own way to handle this and doing it in KDE would only collide (most do not even ship kdeadmin)."

Is there concern about a project being taken in a direction that might benefit one company over others?

"The direction of the project is still decided by those that code the project," Kullow adds. "As this is done more and more by people working for companies like Caldera, SuSE, Mandrake and Redhat (hope I didn't forget one), the companies have of course a way to direct the project. For KDE itself this is good as long as volunteers don't get the feeling their work is of less worth for KDE. There are tendencies, but no real problems so far."

Corel, too, says it is happy with the arrangement.

"We have GUI designers that are part of the Corel LINUX OS Team," says Corel's Janet Chen. "They participate in the GUI discussions on the KDE newsgroups, they have posted some designs and specs of features and they also participate with respect to GUI guidelines which KDE are writing.

"As far as the direction that kde is heading, we can't speak for them and it would be best to request this information directly from KDE.

"Corel determines the scope and market of our product and we fulfill those needs and requirements using a lot of different pieces such as the Debian distribution, KDE, WINE etc. Corel contributes to these projects in many forms such as fixes, enhancements, new features, documentation, UI Specs etc. This contribution is evidenced in the Debian, KDE and WINE projects to name three major ones. We know and understand that not all of our suggestions and changes will be implemented."

Let me stress it once again: I am not saying, nor do I have any evidence to suggest, that Corel has been anything but honorable and helpful in its dealings with the developers of KDE. Corel does not have an easy time of it currently, having recently announced the layoff of numerous employees, having faced a steep decline in its share price, and having endured some scorching press. It has already made some significant contributions to Linux--but one has to wonder how it will justify its Linux development efforts to shareholders.

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