MODELLING AND SIMULATION, WEB ENGINEERING, USER INTERFACES
May 7th, 2009

GNU/Linux Desktop Distress

Right now, I’m running Kubuntu 8.04, which uses the very excellent KDE 3.5.10 desktop environment. Unfortunately, Kubuntu 8.04, unlike its close cousin Ubuntu 8.04, is not an LTS (Long-Term Support) release. This means that, instead of support being discontinued in April 2011, it will be discontinued in October of this year. I suppose this makes sense, as KDE technology has moved on to the 4.* branch. The KDE developers apparently no longer even fix bugs in KDE3 apps. This makes me sad, because I’m totally happy with my current setup. I really don’t want to change my system when everything is working so nicely, but I’m afraid I’m just going to have to bite the bullet and do it. The question is, what should I change to? It seems like my main options are to either upgrade to Kubuntu 9.10 (which will be out in October), which should ship with the KDE 4.3 desktop; or, I stay in 8.04, but step over to the Ubuntu desktop.

One reason I’ve been avoiding using GNOME/Ubuntu is that by using Kubuntu 8.04, I’ve been able to avoid PulseAudio. I have had terrible experiences with PulseAudio so far. It is really not ready for normal users. My roommate Chris has discreetly switched back to using Windows because we couldn’t adequately resolve his audio problems. I don’t blame him; PulseAudio is not ready to go. Neither is Phonon (the KDE4 media backend) for that matter.

BUT, I have used PulseAudio enough to apprehend the vision behind it, and I like it. I like the idea of having audio sources, sinks and streams; having the ability to redirect those streams arbitrarily, even across a network. It’s a lovely, simple vision. I would love to write a beautiful, graph-like UI on top of it. I want to believe in PulseAudio. I want it to work. So, if I can get the minimum apps that I need to work, including the proprietary ones (Flash and Skype, although I’m hoping to finally begin to migrate rapidly away from Skype very soon), given my very minimal hardware requirements, and have it work reliably, then I will be a happy camper. Anyways, I’ve sudo apt-get installed ubuntu-desktop, and I’m going to try it and see what the state of things are.

The other reason why I’ve been hesitant to switch to GNOME/Ubuntu is because of GNOME’s use of Mono. I’m in the camp that says that relying on Mono is bad. Microsoft is litigious and Mono is patent-encumbered. It should therefore be avoided; it’s as simple as that. What that ultimately means in terms of how I use my desktop, though, is not clear. The only applications that come bundled with Ubuntu that use Mono appear to be FSpot and Tomboy. That’s not so bad; these are two apps I can live without. But I was hoping to try out Gnome-Do, which is also based on Mono. It’s tempting to just ignore the issues surrounding it, and just install the app, but it feels dirty and wrong, so I just won’t do it.

There are certain KDE apps that I would miss if I used GNOME: Amarok is a big one. Konqueror is another. KDESVN rocks my socks. Of course, I can use all of these apps in GNOME as well, but then it pulls in all of the KDE libraries.

In any case, these are all KDE3 apps running on top of KDE3. From what I’ve seen, the KDE4 apps are often radically different. One reason I’m even engaging in this discussion is because my experience of KDE4 has so far been quite bad. On every platform I’ve used it, KDE4 has felt slow and buggy. I got a chance to really sink my teeth into it in Kubuntu 9.04 (the last *buntu I installed on my roommate Chris’s computer before he finally gave up on it), and everything regarding usability was just awful. For just an example, look at what they did to the available apt front-ends. Kubuntu 8.04 shipped with aptitude_manager. It was fast, had a fast incremental search, a simple direct UI. I never once had a problem with it. Not a single instance of it not being able to install packages correctly or crashing. Even slightly weird packages like the java-sun* packages that require you to agree a special license installed easily and reliably. In KDE4, on the other hand, you have KPackageKit. The app feels slow, the UI is terrible, and it choked multiple times when trying to install software. In particular, it choked on java-sun, and actually asked me to try using a better apt front-end. Ridiculous. There is also a version of Aptitude for KDE4, although though it doesn’t ship by default, but the UI is also very different from the KDE3 version, and, in my opinion, is not very usable.

My experience of KDE4 was like this constantly while I was setting Chris up with Kubuntu 9.04. So I feel I may not be very happy in KDE4. Too much has changed, most of it for the worse.

So where does that leave me as a full-time GNU/Linux user, looking toward the future of my OS of choice?

Probably GNOME, sans Mono. Although I keep waffling about this. Hopefully, in six months Kubuntu will have turned things around, and I can reassess my decision. But who knows, by that time I might be a happy GNOME user.

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