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the KDE controversy

A quick introduction to the K Desktop Environment, and why some people object to it.

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The K Desktop Environment (KDE) is a project to create a full set of desktop applications, with a standardized look and feel, for the X Window System. It looks similar to the MS Windows 95 desktop, without being a carbon copy of it. KDE has some innovative features, such as a file manager that can browse remote FTP sites as if they were local directories, and which doubles as a simple HTML browser.

KDE is currently the most complete and stable free desktop available for Linux. Unfortunately, it has what many consider to be a fatal flaw: it is not completely free. Or, to be exact, KDE itself is free; but it depends on a library called QT which, although free of charge, is a proprietary product.

So the objection is partly political, but it also has a practical aspect. The basis of free software is the freedom to redistribute and modify to meet your needs, and that is exactly why it has become so good so fast. And, while you can modify many aspects of KDE (in practice, probably many more than you'd want to -- but who knows?), you cannot modify the underlying library functions -- nor can the KDE developers.

The QT library works well and is unlikely to need many changes in the short term, and the company that provides it is friendly toward free software. But many people feel that KDE sets a bad precedent; that the widespread acceptance of non-free components in "free" software could damage the open development process.

Partly because of the above objections, another group of developers decided in early 1997 to create the GNOME desktop environment, which is completely and indisputably free (it is released under the GPL). Although the GNOME project is currently less advanced than KDE, it is gaining ground rapidly and seems likely to become the standard desktop for Linux. Redhat, the makers of the most popular Linux distribution, are strong supporters of GNOME, and Netscape recently announced that it would use GTK, the library GNOME is based on, for future X Windows versions.

I have no wish to dictate anyone's software choices. KDE is popular and easy to use, and you have every right to use it if you feel it meets your needs. But I urge you to consider the objections, and consider other options, before making your decision.

Note to KDE partisans:
I support, as I'm sure you do, the right of Linux users to make their own informed choices about the software they use. If you disagree with anything I have said here, I invite you to send me your comments. The above is my side of the story, but I am also willing to present your side in these pages.


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