Speaking of how software makes you dependent on other people, the newest Ubuntu Long Term Support (LTS) release just came out. This means that in a year, support for the previous LTS release will wind down; which in turn means that Ubuntu users must upgrade sooner or later, unless they want to sacrifice security updates and compatibility with new releases of third-party software.
So, I took the plunge: yesterday I downloaded and installed Kubuntu Lucid.
This is the first Ubuntu LTS release that runs KDE 4, the latest major revision of KDE. I've been using KDE for about 11 years, ever since version 1.1. My immediate reaction was simply that KDE 4 is a mess. And after playing around for a few hours, tweaking settings, and trying to settle in, I still think KDE 4 is a mess. As I use it more, I'm not settling into it; I'm simply accumulating more irritations.
Without exhaustively listing all the details, my complaints basically break down into three categories.
First, there are pervasive performance problems. In every corner of the UI, "shiny" effects have been prioritized over responsive, performant interactivity. To take just one example, under KDE 3.5, the Amarok media player used to be super snappy and responsive; it left iTunes or Windows Media player in the dust. In KDE 4, Amarok takes a couple of seconds to expand one album or to queue up songs, and resizing UI panels is painfully slow and janky. (My workstation has a 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo and a good graphics card. This should not be happening.) Similar problems can be observed in the desktop panels, file manager, etc.
Second, in general, the UI changes seem designed to push KDE's new technology into your attention space, rather than getting out of the way so you can accomplish tasks. Again, here's just one example: in the upper right corner of the desktop, there's a little unremovable widget that opens the "activities" menu:
The upper right corner of the desktop is a hugely valuable piece of screen real estate. By placing this widget in the upper right corner, the developers are signaling that this menu contains operations which will be frequently accessed. Do they really think users will add new panels to the desktop frequently? (For non-KDE users, a "panel" is KDE's equivalent of the Mac OS X dock or the Windows taskbar.) So far, almost every time I've clicked this widget has been by accident while trying to close or resize a window.
If you're a desktop developer who wants to show off your technology, this design may sound good: you put this menu there to make sure users discover your desktop widget and "activities" technology*. However, if you're a user, then this menu mostly gets in your way, and you wish it were tucked away somewhere more discreet.
Third, the KDE 4 version of every application has fewer features and more bugs than the KDE 3 version. The "Desktop" activity no longer has a way to "clean up" icons without repositioning all of them in the upper-left-hand corner. The Konsole terminal application's tab bar no longer has a button from which you can launch different session types. The list goes on.
Anyway, of course, I don't pay for KDE, and so in some sense this is all bitching about free beer. However, suppose I did pay for KDE. Would I have any more input into the process? Windows users pay for Windows; if you don't like the direction Vista and Windows 7 are taking the UI, do you think you personally have any chance of influencing Microsoft's behavior? Mac users pay for Mac OS X; if you disagree with Steve Jobs, do you have any chance of influencing Apple's behavior? In fact, you do not, and both user populations have experienced this reality multiple times in the past decade. Mac users loved the Mac OS 9 UI but they had to give it up when Apple stopped supporting it on new Macs. Microsoft users who are attached to the Windows XP UI will likewise be forced to give it up eventually, when Microsoft stops sending security patches.
The KDE 3 to KDE 4 transition is simply KDE's version of the OS 9 to OS X transition, or the XP to Vista/7 transition. Except that those seem to have worked out OK in the end, whereas KDE 4, which was released over two years ago, seems to have lost its way permanently.
I'm writing this post not just to point out KDE 4's defects — I mean, it feels good to vent, but who really cares — but also to marshal further evidence in support of my contention that owning software doesn't mean much anymore.
Even the fact that KDE is Free Software means little in this case. I mean, what am I supposed to do now? I can't stay with the previous Ubuntu LTS release forever, unless I want to expose myself to security risks, and also be unable to run or to compile new software, both of which are deadly for a software developer. Conversely, I can't singlehandedly maintain a fork of the KDE 3 environment forever; this guy's trying but without a large and active community behind the project, it's doubtful that it will remain current for long. And frankly, I'm getting older, and I don't have enough time to invest in both hacking around with my desktop environment and also accomplishing the other things I want to accomplish in my life.
So, I can either (1) suck it up and live with KDE 4, or (2) abandon the desktop environment I've grown to love over the past 11 years, and jump ship to GNOME or something. (Right now I'm leaning towards (2).) Adopting software means making a calculated bet on the behavior of other people. And sometimes you lose.
*BTW "activities" are 80% redundant with virtual desktops and therefore hugely problematic and confusing as UI design, but I won't get into that.