KDE 4: the ultimate business desktop?

Open source desktop adds enterprise information management tools

Since beginning as a one-person project over ten years ago, the fourth generation of the K Desktop Environment (KDE) is poised to be the most business-friendly open source desktop to date with a host of new features ideal for enterprises.

KDE 4 is now in rapid development and is scheduled for release sometime next year, with the final date still to be decided.

The project's Oceania representative, Hamish Rodda, told Computerworld there are several concerted efforts being made to improve the underlying KDE libraries.

"Some of the improvements include better hardware management, more streamlined multimedia control, and voice-over-IP integration," Rodda said.

Like many open source projects, KDE will run on a variety of Unix systems, the most popular being Linux.

Rodda said the step up to KDE version 4 from version 3 will be more revolutionary, in comparison to the step up from version 2 to version 3, which was more evolutionary.

"Certainly it will be a large improvement, but at the expense of a necessary delay in the otherwise regular release schedule of KDE," he said.

At the heart of KDE is the cross-platform Qt development toolkit from Tolltech, which Rodda believes will expand the potential audience for KDE, and its related software, because it is now GPL licensed on Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows.

"The toolkit on which KDE 4 is based, Qt 4, means that native KDE libraries and applications will be available cross-platform," Rodda said. "The update to Qt 4 will bring a significant performance increase with improvements to memory usage, application start-up, and responsiveness. The great thing about using Qt 4 is that application developers can be much more productive and achieve better results than was possible with Qt 3."

The other significant development will be the changes made to the underlying technologies and user interface. Enhancements over version 3 will include a redesigned desktop interface, better accessibility support, better hardware integration, integrated comprehensive search facilities, and continued improvement in integration between core applications.

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"Also, KDE is well positioned to take advantage of improvements in graphics capabilities on each platform, so it should at least keep pace with improvements in other desktop environments," Rodda said.

Rodda, who is based in the Australian state of Victoria, said the KDE personal information management (PIM) developers are working on a new framework for data storage, which will "bring about a more efficient and functional PIM suite".

The new framework, coined Akonadi, could have particular appeal to businesses as it is designed to be an extensible cross-desktop storage service for PIM data that provides concurrent read, write, and query access across multiple applications.

"The main benefit will be the performance improvements, especially in business environments where there are large volumes of PIM data," Rodda said. "Akonadi will allow us to be even more competitive with Microsoft's Exchange Server, continuing the work done on the Kolab ( server."

Akonadi will provide unique desktop-wide object identification and retrieval, according to its developers.

The Akonadi architecture is built around a central storage repository which is accessed through a language- and platform-neutral protocol. On top of this protocol is a set of APIs which are used to access the PIM data in the repository.

"There is some hope that other PIM suites might share the Akonadi framework, which would improve interoperability. Regardless, it is built on solid open standards such as IMAP and D-BUS," Rodda said.

Akonadi's access APIs can be used by KDE applications like Kontact and KOffice or by other applications like Novell's Evolution, and data can also be transferred between the central Akonadi storage and external sources. Such sources can be groupware servers like Open-Xchange or GroupWise, iCalendar files, or through standard messaging protocols like POP and IMAP.

According to its developers, Akonadi is designed to be accessible to a broad range of applications and resource implementations, and therefore it is easy to add additional APIs.

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"Internally, the KDE PIM code base needs some rewriting to continue to attract quality open source developers," Rodda said. "As Akonadi decouples the PIM data from the user interface, writing applications which access and integrate with your data will be much easier. So, in the long run we hope Akonadi will provide a solid base for KDE PIM software and help accelerate its development."

Rodda is also bullish about KDE 4's ability to attract more commercial ISVs to port applications to the environment, primarily because of the multi-platform capability that comes with using Qt 4.

"Additionally, we're making it easier to convert a Qt program into a KDE one, or even maintain parallel versions," he said. "Should the improvements result in increased market share for KDE 4 as we expect, KDE will become a more important desktop for ISVs to support."

Regarding desktop management, Rodda is not aware of any planned improvements, but said it is an important feature of KDE and is well maintained.

"We have Kiosk, a framework for desktop customization and access control which has matured over several years of use in the business world," he said. "Plus, with X, and especially NoMachine's NX, it is easy to set up dumb terminals and have all applications run on a powerful central server. Alternatively, with Klik, applications can be downloaded as a single file and run without being installed."

The KDE project is online at