From Blue to Brown

Warning! The following post uses a lot of techno-babble and less-than-well-known Linux terms. If you are not familiar with the GNU/Linux operating system, it would help to read this simple Wikipedia explanation first. I have also attempted to provide links for further clarification when using the names of specific Linux programs.

From Blue to Brown

It has been almost a year since I first booted into Kubuntu, the KDE-centric Ubuntu Linux operating system. What a wild ride. I familiarized myself with the applications and the Debian/Ubuntu way of doing Linux, and then I started to reconfigure. And then I reconfigured some more. And then I reconfigured some more. I was installing applications left and right, making DVD playback work here, getting 5.1 audio support there. I eventually let my Slackware background get the best of me, and I compiled drivers (WiFi), software (amaroK SVN, BibleTime CVS, GimpShop), and this all eventually lead to a major mental meltdown. Relating to computer tasks, anyway.

KDE (the Blue) is great for users new to Linux, because it is very similar to Microsoft Windows in many regards. It is also great for experienced Linux users, because it is highly configurable, and these configurations are easy to find, and they provide much needed relief from editing conf files all the time. But, KDE is very sloppy in several places. Mainly in presentation and appearance. This is of course is my humble opinion, but this is also, of course, my humble blog, wherewith I may opine to my heart’s content.

My biggest struggle with KDE was getting non-KDE applications to behave more like KDE applications. I understand that isn’t necessarily KDE’s fault, but much could be done in the standardization of dialog boxes and menu departments. I also started to feel very discontent with the styles and window decorations in KDE. They changed every day (probably more often than my desktop wallpaper), and I never could find something attractive. The default KDE icons, Crystal SVG, are a well-tuned professional icon set. But so much blue gets on my nerves. Literally! And there aren’t Crystal icons for every application in KDE yet, which causes graphic inconsistencies reminiscant of Windows XP still using certain older Windows 2000 icons. They don’t mix; I use computers for long periods at a time, which makes appearance a factor just as important as usability and function.

I knew where this discontent was guiding me, and you probably know by now as well: GNOME (the Brown). GNOME is the default desktop environment for Ubuntu, and thus by nature receives more love and attention in almost all departments (appearance, usability, function). For example: there was an update reminder app for Ubuntu/GNOME long before one came to Kubuntu/KDE. A fabulous icon set, a new-style Human, as well as the tango-fied Human, have been lovingly built especially for Ubuntu. They look great! Ubuntu as a complete product really looks sharp and polished. I recently upgraded my desktop to Dapper 6.06, and I’m enjoying the exploration experience.

One requirement of moving from KDE to GNOME is learning what all the dang-fangled applications do! I actually had to read the Ubuntu User Guide (great job, docteam!) to make sure I understood how to burn a CD (without K3B), and especially to make sure I could adjust system preferences and configurations. In all reality, many of the GNOME apps are ahead of their KDE cousins – Gaim has less AOL IM bugs than Kopete, Ekiga (formerly GnomeMeeting) doesn’t have an official KDE cousin yet, Firefox (default in Ubuntu) is most certainly my preferred browser over Konqueror.

There are troublesome areas, however, as goes any Linux situation in my experience. I’m sure I will appreciate the stability of the Totem movie player over the Kaffeine movie player. But the RhythmBox music player is not anywhere near amaroK’s feature set. There is an alternative called Banshee, which I may investigate soon. I haven’t actually spent that many hours in GNOME yet, so there will be a second part to this post.

What I hope to achieve from this switch is less frustration with the overall appearance of my computer, as well as less time spent configuring applications which should already be human usable.

To be continued, once I get the chance to actually sit down at my desk for a while…

KDE4 On The Chopping Block

KDE developers are hacking away at 4, which is now in /trunk, because 3.5 was moved to a branch. There is a lot of talk about simplification, speed and eye-candy. KDE4 will hopefully blow Windows Vista out of the water (at least in my book, so that I don’t feel tempted at all to use Vista). Maybe perhaps KDE4 will hold its own against Mac OS X Leopard, which would mean that when all those MacIntel ports of applications will run just as well on Linux, and I won’t feel the temptation to switch Mac either.

Nine things KDE should learn from Mac OS X

Some basic thoughts about KDE4

Plasma Kollaboration Forum

Plasma brainstorming…

I’m really excited about the potential that Plasma will bring to KDE. I’m even more excited that aseigo is looking to the community for ideas and concepts.

This is a brain dump I created using KJots (a very useful note-taking utility): Plasma Applet Ideas

KDE 4 Will Be Awesome

I know, you’ve heard that before. You probably heard that KDE 3 would be awesome, too. But seriously, KDE 4 is going to have major UI/usability/candy/feature improvements. The codebase is now being worked on in SVN.

In the works:

  • Plasma – a unified desktop, kicker panel, system tray, and widget framework. The existing SuperKaramba code will be integrated. Icons and widgets can be seamlessly dragged between the kicker panel and the desktop. They can be made to float above windows or below. In general, this is going to be eyecandy heaven. Hopefully it will run circles around Mac OS X’s Dashboard (which was an indirect ripoff of SuperKaramba).
  • Tenor – a systemwide contextual linkage engine. This goes beyond standard “find” and “locate” frontends, which most desktop search tools are based on. Beagle for GNOME and Spotlight for Mac OS X create an active index of files with existing meta information. Tenor, on the other hand, will be integrated into each KDE application, and will store contextual information never yet seen on any desktop OS. For example, when you receive an email attachment, the following information will follow that file: who sent it, whether they are in your address book, when you received the email, when you first opened the attachment, how you responded to the email (did you send a reply?), and much more. I can’t even think of everything it could do. In addition to the Tenor engine, a content browser (possibly within Konqueror) will provide an easy way to view context-based content. (Think Longhorn, minus the SQL-based WinFS, and add the fact that this will actually have a release date).
  • APPEAL – this project isn’t specific to KDE 4, but will play a major part in getting KDE 4 out the door. APPEAL is a team and collaboration of KDE hackers, artists, and documentation writers, all with the intent of planning the direction of KDE and supporting innovative ideas. APPEAL is planning to support the Tenor and Plasma technologies. Other topics discussed at the first meeting were artwork, human interface guidelines, and groupware applications. It seems like the goal of APPEAL is “to restructure KDE into eye catching, usable interfaces.”
  • Qt-Firefox / KFirefox / KGecko – whatever it will be called, Zack Rusin will be porting Firefox and Gecko to Qt4 by the time KDE 4 rolls around (hopefully sooner). This will enable a lot of fun possibilities, including Konqueror with a Gecko engine, Firefox with a KHTML engine, and full KDE integration in Firefox. Integration means KDE dialogues, KPrinter integration, KGet integration, minimal KIO slave support (not all are appropriate for a web browser), full QT-theme support, and *hopefully* integratation with Konqueror bookmarks/cache/cookies.

“Anything you can do, I can do better…”

Remember that old song from Annie Get Your Gun, a 1950s musical, with the venerable Betty Hutton? The original context was women vs. men, and really a social reform / equal rights message hiding behind a musical. But, the song is perfect for a big player in open source: KDE.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Linux. The first time I tried it, back in the days of Red Hat 9, I wasn’t much impressed. Compared to Windows XP, or Mac OS X, it couldn’t do much. It didn’t “just work” like Apple Corp. says Mac OS does, and like Microsoft is now saying Longhorn will do.

There were a few things that I couldn’t get past. For starters, you couldn’t plug in hardware and have it instantly recognized and working. That’s a key part for your mantra to be “it just works.” Also, I had a horribly disheveled desktop, with mismatched icons, different widget toolkits depending on what program I was using, and an overall “I’m in Windows 98” feel. I couldn’t print easily, and there was no Photoshop (only this evil program called the GIMP). The office suite felt underpowered. If you were looking to do “cool” things, like import pictures from your digital camera, burn CDs, watch DVDs, then you might as well had better switch back to Windows.

I’ve come along way since then, and I obviously now realize that you can import new themes, and download new software. But Linux has come along even more so, including the K Desktop Environment. KDE calls itself a “desktop manager”, which means it includes a common GUI desktop, a window manager, a centralized help center, a centralized control center, common widgets and dialogues from app to app, and a wealth of apps that integrate seamlessly. That’s the goal, anyway. When it started it way back in 1998, it was a long way off from that. But fast forward to 2005, with the release of KDE 3.4, and it is a different story entirely. Nowadays, KDE (combined with the power of the latest Linux kernel, version 2.6) can do anything Windows can do.

I have come up with a list of must-have requirements for a desktop in the home (and possibly small business). It describes what KDE can (or can’t) do. The results are suprising, even to me.

Printing. Sure, there’s an “Add Printer” wizard that has as many print drivers (maybe more) than Windows XP. You can also save anything to a PDF document. That’s on par with Mac OS X, and one up on Windows. That same wizard lets you add your friend’s shared printer on his Windows machine, or your boss’s shared printer on his Apple PowerBook. And of course, you can see ink levels, monitor the print queue, and set different quality levels.

Digital Photos. Plug your camera in. A pretty little camera icon shows up on the desktop (again, a lot like Mac OS X, and not much like Windows, where it buries itself in the “My Computer” paradigm). Click the camera icon, and you can browse your photos. Most new and old digital cameras will work: Fugi, Canon, HP, Kodak, Mustek, Sony. This is thanks to Linux 2.6 adding in support for so many USB devices. My wife’s brand new Kodak EasyShare DX7630 worked out of the box. Even better: install a KDE program called digiKam (not part of official KDE, but connected to the KDE universe). My wife loves it. She plugs in her camera, opens digiKam, and clicks on the menu item that reads “Camera: Kodak EasyShare DX7630.” A dialogue appears, much like the photo browser included with many digital cameras, and from the dialogue she can download all or selected pictures (she’s seeing thumbnails) to any of her albums or a new album, or she can delete all or selected pictures. Once in an Album, she can click a photo’s thumbnail to “make it big”, and touch it up with a wealth of plugins. That includes digital artifact reduction, red-eye removal, color, lighting, and painting effects. If she wants to get real crazy, she can open the image in GIMP and do some serious editing.

Music. Windows is lagging in this area. Most music lovers have switched to iTunes and their beloved iPods, while the rest are using WinAmp. A few “regular users” are stuck with MusicMatch, Napster to Go, or RealOne. Does anyone even use Windows Media Player? Anywho, KDE now has several options to choose from. If you’re looking for a straight-up jukebox, use JuK. But if you need to feel the power of iTunes or WinAmp, there is a program for you: amaroK. amaroK can be as simple as WinAmp 2 (or XMMS), or it can be an advanced media browser, complete with playlists, smart playlists, radio stations, cover art (and a wicked-cool cover art manager), context browsing, MusicBrainz statistics and intelligence, lyrics, and yes: iPod support. It even says “your iPod” in the help text of the portable media player browser. That’s dumb, because not everyone has an iPod like me, but oh well. They realize that the iPod will forever dominate. Oh, and I’m pretty sure it works with your silly Creative Zen / Dell Jukebox. The only thing missing from this excellent setup is the iTunes Music Store. The current workaround is using PyMusique, a python/GTK-based interface to the iTMS that allows for browsing, previewing, and legally purchasing. Coincidentally, it also strips the purchased song of any copy protection. Binary packages are available for my favorite distro, (K)ubuntu.

Video. The strong contenders in the Windows digital video market, both on and offline, include Microsoft’s Media Player, Apple’s Quicktime, Real’s RealPlayer, and (more recently) Macromedia/Adobe’s Flash player. Of those, Real and Flash are officially supported in Linux, with those companies compiling a Linux port of each new version. But the real question with Quicktime and Windows Media Player is codecs. AVI, XviD, DivX, WMV, MOV; sound familiar? Those are all video formats. Currently, KDE and most distributions do not ship ready to play these file formats. You have to install Mplayer, plus a KDE frontend for it (Kplayer, KMplayer, etc.) or just install the codecs they provide. They have support for about a zillion codecs natively, and they also support Windows DLL codecs. That means any new papa that comes to town with a new video format for Windows hasn’t excluded Linux. Personally, I prefer Kaffeine, a great KDE video player, that supports multiple backends (default is xine). With Kaffeine (and those darn codecs installed), I can play Quicktime movies, DivX movies, AVI files, Windows Media Video, Digital Video Broadcasts, DVD video discs, VCDs, RealPlayer streams, and whole lot more I haven’t tried. So, video is ready and working, it just needs to be included by default in all the Linux distributions.

Office. There are two major office suites available for Linux: KOffice (KDE’s office suite), and (Sun’s open-source office suite). KOffice has many more parts, such as a project manager, database GUI, forms creator, vector illustrator, personal information manager, and more. It sounds a lot like Office 2003, yes?, while having few applications, is actually further along in the process of being a very powerful office suite. OpenOffice can open and save Microsoft proprietary-format documents. KOffice has trouble opening them, and has no plans to support saving to them. But, that is only important if you still have Microsoft Office within your circle of friends. OpenOffice is available on Windows, so convert everyone, and no more fuss. :) In recent news, the OASIS group came up with the OpenDocument format, which all open-source word processors, spreadsheets and presenters will support and hopefully use by default. I’ve heard that Corel might add OpenDocument support to WordPerfect. All we would need then is to create a filter for Microsoft Office to read and save OpenDocument files. And, since it is an “open format”, we shouldn’t have any trouble doing that!

Email. Well, duh. KDE’s KMail is miles ahead of Microsoft’s free Outlook Express. I even prefer Kontact to Microsoft Outlook 2000. Nothing, however, is as BAD as Mac OS X Tiger’s Mail.

Web. I wish I could say that Konqueror is ready for the masses. But it wouldn’t be true. They need to simplify the web profile, and they need to ditch KHTML. Yeah, Safari is based on KHTML, but they have not and never will (probably) see backports of Apple’s improvements. Konqueror really needs to use the Gecko (Mozilla Firefox) engine. Until then, I’ll be using Mozilla Firefox, with a theme applied that makes it look and feel like the rest of KDE. That still doesn’t provide full integration with KDE desktop, though, including DCOP calls and KIO slave support. But Firefox in KDE is a lot better than Internet Explorer in Windows.

Burn CDs & DVDs. Yes. With flying colors. K3B is quite possibly at the top of the open-source software coolness list. It burns CD data, CD audio, CD-RW, Video CD, DVD data, DVD video, DVD audio, DVD-/+RW (depending on what your drive supports), and supports CD audio ripping, CD ISO file creation, and DVD ripping.

So if you are ever wondering what’s cool in the Linux world, go do a Google search for digiKam, amaroK, Kaffeine (oh, and how about a few QT/KDE apps I didn’t mention — Scribus and Inkscape.)

KBerry – Blackberry Sync for Linux

No, it doesn’t exist. But boy, do a lot of people wish it did! Currently, there is no driver support whatsoever for Blackberry devices in Linux. I believe it is a combination of a few problems: the official Blackberry Windows driver/software has export restrictions (?!?!) and breaking the encryption scheme on the data may break DMCA law.

That aside, I present to you KBerry, the KDE Blackberry Sync Manager.

KBerry Mockup

For the simple purpose of konsistency, the KBerry user interface should look a lot like KPilot. Think about it: a Blackberry isn’t much different from a Palm in functionality, so logically, the sync program should be similar. We wouldn’t be able to actually USE KPilot, because the interfacing between a Blackberry and Palm is completely foreign. KBerry would hopefully be a frontend for a command line Blackberry interface tool and library, so that other apps (GBerry?) could be written. Also required is a Blackberry-RIM kernel module (Yet to be developed).

So hackers, get to it! Please!