How KDE’s Vast Open-Source Community Has Been Developing Technologies to Bring Reliable, Monopoly-Free Computing to the World for 20+ Years

How KDE’s Vast Open-Source Community Has Been Developing Technologies to Bring Reliable, Monopoly-Free Computing to the World for 20+ Years

TL; DR: More than two decades ago, Matthias Ettrich founded KDE with a call to arms to the open-source community to collaborate on the development of a budget-friendly, true graphical user interface (GUI) for the Linux OS. This eventually led to the creation of Plasma, a cross-device, intuitive, and customizable work environment that allows users to define workflows on their own terms. KDE’s team has also designed innovative platforms to simplify application builds for developers, streamlining an otherwise time-consuming and tedious process. KDE is all about creative freedom, which is why hundreds of artists, designers, programmers, translators, and contributors from around the globe come together through the organization to cooperate on delivering open-source, monopoly-free computing to the world.

In 1996, Matthias Ettrich found himself frustrated with the absence of a user-friendly, inexpensive work environment for the Linux operating system. Most people employing Linux at the time were running it on Unix; however, the platform didn’t offer a workspace that presented an intuitive graphical user interface (GUI) that was both effective and easy on the eyes.

Matthias had the idea and the basic framework for an improved alternative in mind, but he knew he’d need help to create the platform. So he posted a call to action asking the Linux development community to join him, and, thus, KDE was born. Matthias’s note eventually resulted in the creation of KDE’s flagship product, Plasma — a cross-device, customizable work environment that gives users full control over workflows.

Collage of Sebastian Kügler's headshot and the Plasma work environment

KDE’s Sebastian Kügler told us how the organization’s creative community develops open-source products like Plasma.

Today, KDE is made up of hundreds of artists, designers, programmers, translators, and other contributors who are committed to the development of free, open-source software to enable simple computing for end users and streamline application builds for developers. For two decades, the organization and its annual conference, Akademy, have been attracting these skilled professionals to collaborate and lend their expertise to the community.

“Akademy is such a welcoming atmosphere,” said Sebastian Kügler, Senior Plasma Developer at KDE. “The first year I attended I was just sitting in my room writing software, and someone from Debian approached me and said he’d like to make my work available to millions of users.”

At the time, Sebastian was only a student and was shocked that his work could have such a huge impact on so many people. That’s when he became dedicated to helping further KDE’s mission to foster a community of experts committed to experimentation and the development of software applications that optimize the way we work, communicate, and interact in the digital space.

“With enough determination, you can really make a difference in the world,” Sebastian said. “The more I realized this, the more I knew KDE was the right place to do it.”

A Network Dedicated to Experimentation & Building Innovative Software

KDE’s community allows projects to flourish by providing continuous input and improvement.

“We currently have 50 to 60 million users, so when we make decisions, it affects a lot of people,” Sebastian said. “The work we’re doing really makes a difference on a global scale.”

Contributors are not limited to software developers — members of the community help by testing, translating, and promoting projects. KDE consists of several smaller teams that work on different parts of a project, including development, documentation, and bug reporting, among others.

Collage of KDE community members at Akademy

KDE’s community comes together each year at the organization’s annual conference, Akademy, to collaborate and learn.

The KDE Core Team is made up of KDE’s major software contributors, while the following teams cover specific aspects of KDE projects:

  • KDE Edu Team: develops free educational software
  • Accessibility Team: makes KDE accessible to users with disabilities
  • Artists Team: designs themes, software icons, and web graphics
  • Bugsquad Team: tracks and verifies bugs
  • Documentation Team: writes documentation for apps and systems
  • Localization Team: translates KDE into other languages
  • Marketing Team: writes press releases and articles for KDE sites
  • Research Team: petitions for research funding and support
  • Usability Team: reviews interfaces for usability
  • Web Team: maintains KDE’s presence on the web
  • KDE Women: advocates for women involvement in KDE projects
  • Release Team: sets and announces official release schedules

Events, like Akademy, allow developers to meet and collaborate, and even lead to major recognition and project growth, as seen in Sebastian’s case. Similarly, Camp KDE is held annually and allows contributors from regions outside Europe to gather and share experiences.

KDE’s e.V. organization helps provide accommodations to presenters and leaders in remote locations. Season of KDE is a student program offered to people who are not accepted into Google’s Summer of Code. KDE seeks to not only support current developers but also helps foster the development of future open-source contributors.

Realizing the Dream of Creating a Universal UI Deliverable on All Devices

KDE was started as a Unix improvement project, and many of its subsequent developments are either unique innovations or improved modifications of old software.

“Plasma is actually a continuation of K Desktop,” Sebastian said. “The idea back then was to create an integrated and unified interface for Unix computers because Unix applications were cobbled together and inconsistent.”

Because its mission centers on finding better ways to approach computing, KDE’s community is naturally inclined toward innovation and interface improvement.

Plasma is a lightweight desktop that uses few resources and is built on widgets, meaning it can be run on almost any hardware and users can easily move and adjust the desktop to their liking in a drag-and-drop environment. The original KDE was created with users in mind, offering a clean look and intuitive navigation. Today, the Plasma Desktop continues to provide a unified environment for app management on desktops, laptops, set-top boxes, tablets, and smartphones.

The reach of KDE software extends to several of the most popular Linux-based operating systems, including Kubuntu, Solaris, and openSUSE. OpenSUSE is used by many companies, including the home improvement retailer Lowe’s. One of KDE’s most successful projects was KHTML, a cross-platform engine for web browsers.

“There was a web browser included in the original KDE called KHTML,” Sebastian said. “That was actually the original version of WebKit, so the browser that runs on all mobile phones originated in the KDE project.”

KHTML’s descendant software was eventually worked into WebKit, which is the engine used by Opera, Safari, BlackBerry Browser, and even Google Chrome.

Focusing on Quality to Grow Global Market Demand for KDE Technologies

KDE’s global reach was made possible through collaboration and hard work. The KDE community aims to ensure projects are as user-friendly and refined as possible. And, because it is open-source and free, KDE software is a popular choice for budget-conscious end users.

KDE offers free versions of its software, including file viewers, database creators, file-sharing programs, and an office suite called Calligra, which is available on desktop and mobile devices.

“By now, I would say free software has largely won the game,” Sebastian said. “The new challenge is that we want to guarantee the user’s freedom and privacy.”

By focusing on quality and user needs, KDE stands out in the open-source software space. Given its history of designing products specifically for ease of use, the natural evolution of KDE is to implement greater freedom, privacy, and quality measures.

“The techniques we are using right now, like automated checking, really help us go the extra mile and add the last few percent of quality that we really need,” Sebastian said. “We know that our software just isn’t good enough if we don’t give 110% to improve quality.”

With a greater emphasis on quality, KDE seeks to grow its markets and tap into the potential provided by a much greater percentage of open-source developers.

A Forward-Facing Aim to Expand the Community & Optimize DevOps

In keeping with its tradition of innovation, KDE plans to roll out new projects focused on protecting user privacy and implementing software across devices.

“We’re working on our cross-device platform, Sebastian said. “We really want to bring high quality products to different devices and make it much easier for users to protect privacy.”

KDE also plans to incorporate more design elements into its products to make them more visually appealing. Ultimately, end users are at the heart of KDE’s projects.

Just as Sebastian was welcomed into the community and praised for his software, many other fledgling and professional developers, and contributors have joined KDE to help build quality open-source applications for a variety of needs and markets. Through its millions of users, hundreds of community members, and conferences, like Akademy, KDE encourages the growth of the open-source software philosophy and actively promotes expanded access to computer science education and digital freedom worldwide.

Sean Garrity

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  • bubs

    i love using plasma 5.x. thanks!!

  • Praxis

    All glory to the KDE developers and contributors. I’m one of those 50 million users because I think that the original Windows 95 interface of menus, panels, icons, taskbars, widgets, etc. makes for a very usable PC interface, and KDE provides the most easily customizable desktop environment that gives me most of what I want. Actually, I can rub along just fine with other environments, like XFCE, Cinnamon, or mate, but regardless of which one I use I end up using several KDE applications like kate, dolphin, gwenview, konsole, etc. because I love the notion of having a lot of features and being able to customize my toolbars to have the buttons I actually want in the place I want them.

    That wrote, I’ve been less and less enamored with KDE since the glory days of mature KDE 3. It seems like every 5 years KDE releases a half-baked major version of beta quality software, never quite fixing all the introduced bugs delivering all the features of the previous version, despite gobs of bug reports. I gather these new versions are driven by this vision of a universal UI (despite the fact that 99.99% of users are on PCs) and also “under-the-hood” changes to make the code base easier to develop & maintain. So much development time seems to be devoted to features that users rarely use or turn off immediately (baloo, akonadi, kmail, activities, etc.) that it seems like trivial problems never go away. But I have to do my part by submitting more bug reports and hoping their eventually get addressed. In the meantime I use Debian stable (now old stable, Jessie), which allows me to stick with mature versions of KDE while the newer ones slowly sort out their issues and become more usable.

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