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Linus, KDE4, and Yapping Anklebiters

Much Sound and Frenzy

  • January 28, 2009
  • By Bruce Byfield

Just as KDE 4 is poised to prove itself with the user-friendly 4.2 release, the year-long controversy over the changes from the KDE 3 release has ignited again. This time, the spark was a interview comment by Linus Torvalds that he had switched to GNOME and thought that the KDE release had been mis-managed.

Torvalds' comment produced a flood of response across the web, including an apologia from leading KDE developer Aaron Seigo. And, as often happens in online discussions, both sides seem to have grabbed hold of part of the truth while ignoring the rest, with much of the distortion due to misrepresentations in the free software press.

Torvalds' comments came near the end of an article by Rodney Gedda for Computerworld. Asked how KDE 4 had affected him as a user, Torvalds replied by referring to his personal experience, as well as the fact that the KDE 4 series of releases is a major break from the previous version, and sometimes lacks backwards compatibility:

I used to be a KDE user. I thought KDE 4.0 was such a disaster I switched to GNOME. I hate the fact that my right button doesn't do what I want it to do. But the whole "break everything" model is painful for users and they can choose to use something else.
I realise the reason for the 4.0 release, but I think they did it badly. They did so many changes it was a half-baked release. It may turn out to be the right decision in the end and I will re-try KDE, but I suspect I'm not the only person they lost.
I got the update through Fedora and there was a mismatch from KDE 3 to KDE 4.0. The desktop was not as functional and it was just a bad experience for me. I'll revisit it when I reinstall the next machine, which tends to be every six to eight months.
The GNOME people are talking about doing major surgery so it could also go the other way.

Although these off-hand comments were only half a page in a six-page interview, they were made its focus in reporting on Slashdot and other online news outlets.

One reason for the attention -- aside, of course, from Torvalds' fame -- was that he had made headlines three years ago by posting on the GNOME Usability list that, "I personally just encourage people to switch to KDE. This 'users are idiots, and are confused by functionality' mentality of GNOME is a disease. If you think your users are idiots, only idiots will use it. I don't use GNOME because, in striving to be simple, it has long since reached the point where it simply doesn't do what I need it to do."

The difference between the two comments were enough to revive the long-smoldering GNOME vs. KDE flame war, as well as the noisy discontent in some circles with the first two releases of KDE 4. Inevitably, KDE defenders soon added their voices to the blaze, especially on Slashdot, where many of nearly 800 comments were dedicated to refighting the views of KDE that have been expressed since KDE 4.0 was released a year ago.

Provisional Support

The main point that seems to be overlooked in the controversy is that Torvalds' support is provisional. He has not retracted his earlier comments on GNOME, nor has he abandoned KDE with ringing cries of, "Nevermore!" In fact, he will revisit his decision in half a year.

This position sounds similar to Torvalds' view of distributions. Asked about his favorite distribution, Torvalds once replied, "I don't really tend to care much, I've changed distributions over the years, and to me the most important thing tends to be that they are easy to install and upgrade, and allow me to do the only part I really care about - the kernel . . . . I'll take the nice ones with simple installers etc, because to me, that's the whole and only point of using a distribution in the first place."

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