K Desktop makes Linux a looker

By Bill Machrone
PCWeek Online

November 24, 1997

Linux has a new look. The K Desktop Environment (http://www.kde.org/) is a bold stroke at implementing a consistent, powerful and attractive GUI under Unix's X Window System. Although KDE is designed to run in any X environment, it will most likely find the most welcome reception among Linux users. Current Linux distributions mix and match a variety of X programs, bringing inconsistency and different behaviors into the otherwise consistent Linux arena.

As freeware, KDE is an attempt to unite these different distributions with a consistent look and feel.

Most of us have stopped thinking about the desktop as a separate component of the operating system, but it still is--even in Windows 95 and NT (although the HTML desktop capabilities offered by Win 98 begin to raise the issue all over again). The component nature is more of an issue on the Unix side of the world, where you have considerably more freedom to choose your look and feel.

While most Unix desktop environments do their utmost to look like Win 95, KDE reminds me more of Mosaic, a refinement of Windows and Mac paradigms that's seen on a number of Unix workstations.

The Linux world will probably never have total consistency across desktops, for two reasons. The first is that it's still an area of significant individualism and iconoclasm. Second, KDE has commercial competition. Caldera, in particular, sells its Integrated Desktop as part of its OpenLinux Base product. Caldera's distribution consistently ranks among the top two or three Linux distributions, so if you're using Caldera, you'll probably go with the Integrated Desktop for convenience, support and consistency with other OpenLinux users.

Currently in beta test, KDE is thoroughly modern in its approach to the internetworked world. Properly written K desktop applications use an I/O library that makes network resources transparent. Thus they can get data from the local file system, an FTP server or any other device that can be described by a URL.

In keeping with the free software concept, you can download KDE binaries and source files, modify them and redistribute them, as long as you do it for free. But K itself is built on Troll Tech's (http://www.troll.no/qtinfo.html) Qt tool kit, a GUI construction set. Qt itself has some license restrictions when you use it to build commercial applications.

KDE embodies big ideas and lofty goals while being hampered by a lack of funds and the limited time of a few dedicated individuals. You can see the holes in the form of broken links, constantly swamped FTP sites and pleas for help in any form, even a spare SCSI hard disk. Don't let this dissuade you, however. Linux has proved itself to be a worthy Unix implementation, and Unix, despite all efforts to the contrary (spelled "NT"), remains the operating system of choice for Web servers. If you live online and have little need for workaday Winapps or are committed to using a freeware or commercial Unix-based office suite, you probably already have Linux or another freeware/cheapware OS on your desktop machine. If so, you owe it to yourself to investigate KDE.

Bill Machrone is vice president of technology for Ziff-Davis Inc. He can be reached at bill_machrone@zd.com.

Copyright 1997