KDE 4 on Windows
Have you ever found yourself working on Windows—for whatever reason—and reached for one of your favorite applications from the free software world only to remember that it is not available on Windows?
It is not a problem for some of the best-known free software applications, such as Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice.org, GIMP or Pidgin. However, for some popular Linux applications, such as those from the KDE desktop software project, cross-platform support only recently became a possibility. KDE relies on the Qt toolkit from Nokia, which has long been available under the GPL for operating systems such as Linux that use the X Window System, but it was available under proprietary licenses for Windows only until the most recent series, Qt4. With the release of a GPL Qt for Windows, KDE developers started work on porting the libraries and applications to Windows, and the KDE on Windows Project was born. The project tracks the main KDE releases on Linux and normally has Windows versions of the applications available shortly after.
It is easy to try out KDE applications on Windows. Simply go to the project Web site (windows.kde.org), download and run the installer (Figure 1). You'll be presented with a few choices to make, such as the installation mode (a simple “End User” mode with a flat list of applications or the “Package Manager” mode that is categorized like many of the Linux package managers). You also are given the option of whether to install packages made with the Microsoft compiler or those made with a free software alternative—as many users are likely neither to care about nor understand this option, it may have been better to hide it in an advanced tab.
Next, you are presented with a choice of download mirrors, followed by the choice of which version of KDE software to install. It's hard to imagine why you wouldn't simply want the latest stable release, but the installer gives you a few options and, oddly, seems to preselect the oldest by default.
In the next step, you are presented with a list of applications and software groups available to install, or you can select everything (Figure 2). The installer then takes care of downloading and installing the software, and you don't need to make any further interventions. I did find that the speed of the various mirrors varied greatly; some were up to ten times faster than others. If you're short of time and things seem to be going slowly, it may be worth canceling the download and trying another mirror. The installer is intelligent enough to re-use what you already have downloaded, so you don't really lose anything in this way. When the installation is complete, your new KDE applications are available in a KDE Release subsection of the Windows application menu.
The main KDE 4 distribution for Linux is split into large modules—for example, Marble, a desktop globe application, is part of the KDE Education module with many other applications for subjects ranging from chemistry to astronomy. This works fine on Linux, where most of what you need is installed with your chosen distribution. But, if you're on Windows and want a desktop globe but have no interest in chemistry or physics, there are clear benefits in preserving your download bandwidth and hard-drive space by not downloading everything else. Patrick Spendrin, a member of both the KDE on Windows and Marble projects, says they recognize this issue: “as one can see, we are already working on splitting up packages into smaller parts, so that each application can be installed separately.” Many modules already have been split, so you can install the photo management application digiKam, individual games and key parts of the KDE software development kit separately from their companion applications. The productivity suite KOffice will be split up in a similar way in the near future, and Patrick hopes that the Education module will follow shortly afterward.
Overall, the installation process will feel familiar and easy if you've used Linux in the past. However, if you have used only Windows, the process of using a single installer to install whatever applications you want may seem a little strange. After all, most applications for Windows are installed by downloading a single self-contained executable file that installs the application and everything it needs to run in one go. The KDE on Windows installation process reflects the fact that KDE applications share a lot of code in common libraries.
Patrick explains that individual self-contained installers simply would not make sense at this stage: “the base libraries for a KDE application are around 200MB, so each single application installer would be probably this size.” A version of Marble, however, is available from its Web site as a self-contained installer—the map widget is pure Qt, so it is possible to maintain both a Qt and KDE user interface wrapping that widget. The pure Qt version is small enough to be packaged in this way.
As Torsten Rahn, Marble's original author and core developer puts it, having a standalone installer for the full KDE version of Marble “would increase the time a user needs to download and install Marble; installing the Qt version takes less than a minute.” It might be possible in the future to package a common runtime environment and provide applications as separate executables, similar to the approach taken by Java applications, but Patrick notes that this would take time, as “it would be a lot different from the current Linux-like layout.” In any case, the current approach has some advantages, because it makes you aware of other available applications and allows you to try them out simply by marking an extra check box.