KDE Summit 2004

by Tom Chance

With approximately half a thousand registered participants attending over the course of ten days and sponsors including HP, SuSE-Novell, Trolltech and IBM, this year's KDE World Summit--aKademy--proved to be the most successful yet. Held in the Ludwigsburg Filmakademie, it provided experienced developers and novice users alike the chance to learn more about and discuss the K Desktop Environment project.

The summit was split into three sections. It opened with a weekend Developer Conference, with presentations and ensuing discussions centered on shaping the future direction of KDE. During the week, the Coding Marathon gave developers the chance to work in the same room as one another and organise Birds of a Feather (BoF) sessions to discuss broader issues in more depth. The second weekend brought the Users and Administrators Conference, a showcase for existing and forthcoming KDE technologies as well as KDE success stories. Given the sheer number of presentations, meetings and anecdotes encountered during the event, this report can relate only a superficial account of the summit, but one that I hope gives you a flavour of the event.

The Developer Conference opened with a keynote speech by Eirik Chambe-End, co-founder of Trolltech, the company that maintains the Qt toolkit upon which KDE is based. First planned on a park bench with co-founder Haavard Nord, Eirik described how Qt since has taken Trolltech to its current position with 4,400 customers, 90 employees and a profitable business plan.

This celebratory tone was tempered by two days of presentations addressing areas that developers want to tackle in the future. Ambitious plans for pervasive meta-data based search technology, a new advanced multimedia backend to replace aRts and even a Linux Registry were discussed. Also of note were talks on cooperation with other projects, with Daniel Stone's presentation on freedesktop.org being the best attended and most discussed. Despite open disagreements in the KDE community, cooperation with freedesktop.org looks set to continue and indeed may strengthen with the need to form consensus on difficult and divisive issues, such as integration with GNOME technologies.

The second day saw the opening of the first UNIX Accessibility Forum, bringing KDE developers together with representatives from IBM, Sun Microsystems, Novell, GNOME, Trolltech and the Free Standards Group (FSG) and others to address this important area of work. Standards for assistive technologies that could be applied throughout all UNIX systems were hot topics, with technologies for speech synthesis and recognition amongst those receiving attention. Given that so far KDE's accessibility work has focused on individual applications such as KMag, a screen magnifier, those working on this section of the KDE project were delighted with the progress made at this event.

The Accessibility Forum continued into the coding marathon, during which developers were given the opportunity to watch blind and visually impaired users showcase what assistive technologies they already have. With proprietary assistive technology often costing hundreds if not thousands of US dollars, Janina Sajka, a representative from the Accessibility Workgroup of the FSG, was delighted to see such good progress in free software. She noted that ree software allows the developers and users of assistive technologies to work together, in contrast to proprietary developments.

The coding marathon also gave hackers the unique pleasure of watching some of KDE's flagship products in the Personal Information Management (PIM) suite being subjected to usability tests. After hearing presentations on the subject from both KDE hackers and usability professionals, a series of usability labs saw KDE novices subjected to the shortcomings of Kontact, an application that includes most of the PIM applications. To see the developers groaning and laughing, with heads in hands, one might have mistaken a reasonably successful audit for a disaster. But the usability experts present were enthusiastic, not only about KDE's progress in this area but also about working with free software projects.

Given the short release cycles, the open nature of the development process and the willingness to improve, the experts seem to be much happier working with KDE than with proprietary development shops. Once feature-complete, Openusability.org should become a hub for some progressive usability work in the Free Software community. As if determined to demonstrate this, PIM hackers went straight to work fixing some of the usability bugs hours after the labs had taken place.

For the rest of the week, most hackers were busy either working in the computer labs or taking time out to enjoy the company of their usually virtual colleagues. Late nights at the wine festivals, local bars and sightseeing trips around Ludwigsburg provided fun for everyone. The commitment to the project coupled with a real community spirit were testament to the ethic of Free Software communities.

BoF sessions of note in the marathon included those on the future of KOffice, which will move wholesale to OpenOffice's OASIS file formats; the future of KDE PIM, which will see a major usability cleanup before the next release; and the future of KDE artwork, which finally will transition to SVG for icons. A BoF on local KDE groups brought KDE Netherlands, KDE North American and KDE Great Britain together over lunch. They discussed improving KDE's presence at tradeshows and other promotional meetings and debated the funding relationship between these groups and KDE's financial and legal centrepiece, the KDE e.V. There is growing consensus within the KDE community that these groups can attract contributors and publicity, so developing and clarifying their roles will be an important issue for some time to come.

The final weekend of the summit saw the Users and Administrators conference, which opened with another self-congratulatory keynote, this time from Chris Schlaeger, Vice President of Research and Development at SuSE-Novell. He looked back at the history of the KDE Project, from using the terminal in fvwm2 before KDE's inception to using KDE 3.2.3 in SuSE 9.1. Chris also described what his company sees as the key challenges for the KDE Project. He identified moving from the power-user market into the wider enterprise market as a key target for SuSE-Novell, whose Linux desktop, offering a choice of KDE and GNOME, is due out in the near future.

For the following two days, users and administrators from across the world, though dominated by local visitors, were told about using KDE in the office, about KDE groupware technologies and about developing customised solutions with KDE technologies. Despite the occasional technical focus, many developers had left already, giving a less lively but more open feeling to the weekend.

This sentiment was echoed in the party on Saturday night, arranged to celebrate the international Software Freedom Day. With most hackers either on their way home or working in the computer labs, an underwhelming party provided something of an anticlimax to an interesting day's presentations.

Sunday opened with Michael Schultz, a Technical Marketing Manager from Hewlett-Packard, praising KDE and placing HP at the centre of the free software world. Emphasising HP's contributions to projects such as Samba, Debian, linuxprinting.org and OpenSSI, he also noted areas where HP is using free software in-house, including the mail server that uses postfix and the use of Jabber in meetings. From the tone of the talk, one might have presumed HP would be a friend of the audience, but hard questions ranged from HP's stance on software patents to HP's lack of support for the Wi-Fi feature in their new Linux-supported laptop, the nx5000.

Throughout the day speakers told their audience about success stories with KDE, including a representative from Hannover who spoke of his company's plans to migrate its 11,700 desktop PCs to GNU/Linux with KDE. With 68 offices currently running Solaris x86 version 8 with CDE, the company is planning a pilot installation in January 2005, with a complete rollout scheduled for the spring of the same year. Given the length of time allocated for the migration in the City of Munich, both the size and speed of this migration amazed listeners.

One of the key components for this migration, Kiosk, was the subject of a talk by its principle author Waldo Bastian. Designed to complement the standard UNIX security architecture, it allows sysadmins to lock down every aspect of the KDE desktop, from blocking configurability to rearranging toolbars.

The final success story--one that is well known to all free software advocates--came from Klaus Knopper, who described why he chose KDE for Knoppix. With a sense of humour that was appreciated at the end of a long day, he identified the key reason as being the ability to have many terminals open simultaneously. As for why he chose KDE instead of another competing desktop environment, he simply pointed at the desktop icons as being more convenient for him at the time. Although his talk certainly wasn't a KDE cheerleader's dream, it served to demonstrate the maturity and flexibility of KDE.

Within an hour of the last question to Klaus the buildings were emptied of participants, leaving only a team of volunteers, predominantly local, to begin the clean-up operation. But if there was one sign that aKademy was a success, it was the smiles on the faces of exhausted volunteers picking up litter and dismantling the network. With Malaga, Brazil and Philadelphia penciled in as possible venues for the 2005 conference, and even more grand plans in discussion, the coming year certainly won't be quiet in the KDE community.

Tom Chance is a student reading Philosophy and Politics. He actively is involved with digital rights groups and the KDE Project. He can be found lurking on hillsides or park benches.

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