KDE looks at the path ahead

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© Lydia Pintscher Image By VGrigas (WMF) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3

© Lydia Pintscher Image By VGrigas (WMF) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3

Article from Issue 211/2018
Author(s):

Two leaders of the KDE project report on priorities and celebrate a funding victory.

The KDE project recently received a $200,000 donation from the Pineapple Fund. Swap sat down with Lydia Pintscher, the president of KDE e.V. board, and Sebastian Kügler, the former vice president of the board, to understand the goals of the KDE project and how the KDE community will use the funds to further those goals.

KDE is one of the oldest open source communities. The KDE project was founded by Matthias Ettrich in 1996 as an attempt to build a better desktop for Unix systems. Today, the KDE project has evolved into a massive community that creates more than just a desktop environment for Linux and BSD. To better manage a growing community, Ettrich also created a non-profit organization called KDE e.V.

KDE e.V. supports the KDE community in legal and financial matters. According to Lydia Pintscher, "We also fund KDE-related events like Akademy and developer sprints. We pay the bills for the servers that host the source code, in addition to a lot of other things."

Most KDE financial support comes in one of three ways. Pintscher explained, "The one that's closest to my heart is individual contributions. People donate anything from fl2 to fl100 because they like our software and want to support it."

Another way KDE e.V. receives funding is through membership fees for patrons. "It's for companies that value our code and use it. They want to support it financially." The third way, is through sponsorship of Akademy, an annual event for KDE contributors.

Areas of Focus

Currently, the KDE community has identified two important priorities. "One is a bit conservative angle; we are trying to make the software more stable and polishing it," said Kügler. "We are doing really well, and our public perception is getting better. Users really seem to appreciate the strategy of polishing the current codebase, making it slicker and fixing bugs. Now we can polish without large architectural changes. We have a focus on what really matters to users and what gets us positive feedback: stability and performance."

The other critical concern is privacy. "More than ever, what this world really needs is tools to protect privacy. The tools that give you the possibility of leading a private life," he said, "I think identity theft is going to become a really huge problem in the future."

We have already seen cases where both private companies and government agencies have had their systems compromised. As we are becoming more dependent on software, cyberwarfare is going to heat up. Attackers can shut down power supplies, or even cause damage to civil infrastructure. "We are building tools and rallying the community to build strong software and help people fend against these things," he said.

Pintscher and Kügler point out that the market for the PC itself is declining. Instead of PCs, people are relying more on embedded hardware and mobile devices. That's exactly where the KDE community is making future investments. "We are creating the Plasma Mobile platform. Not much of it is visible right now, but we are working on making it run really well on smaller embedded devices."

The work on Plasma Mobile is not visible yet because it is more than just a different UI. A whole new stack of software, which is leaner and more resource efficient, is needed for a mobile platform. According to Pintscher and Kügler, "We are spending a lot of time in optimizing memory usage to make Plasma run on these smaller systems. This work will benefit not only the future platform but also the existing software."

The community had a meeting in December 2017 where they gathered in a castle in Germany and spent a week optimizing Plasma. "It's boring work to the general public, but it's really important for people who have high expectations of their software."

The KDE team also plans to increase the focus on making KDE technologies more friendly to embedded systems. "We are partnering with a company that's building smart speakers, which is one of the fastest growing markets right now."

The KDE leaders admitted that the KDE community is not very good at marketing and getting the word out. "We are professionalizing our marketing department, but in the end, there is only so much we can do. In our opinion, the priority should be improving the software experience, because once you have a really good product, it will spread by itself."

Pineapple Fund

The Pineapple fund was started by an anonymous donor (with the nickname "Pine") who made a lot of bitcoin in the early days and is now donating to nonprofit organizations he cares about. "KDE was one of the organizations that applied and was selected for the donation. We received $200,000. This is the biggest donation KDE e.V. has ever received. We will put it to good use," Pintscher said.

The donation has doubled the total funding that the community has to-date and they need to use this money carefully. One way to use that money could be by paying a developer to write code. But KDE is a volunteer-driven project; you can't pay one developer while the rest of the people are doing it for free.

"None of KDE's current money goes towards development. We do have one part-time paid position, but it's to assist the board and the community with organizational matters. There are two other contractors who work for our marketing team. Beyond that there are no people paid by KDE e.V. to work on the software."

Pintscher and Kügler said the community is discussing how to use this money in the most impactful way. "We are contemplating hiring or contracting people to do specific things, such as documentation, clean-ups, usability tests, or marketing research."

"What we are trying to do is invest in multipliers. We want to make it easier for volunteer developers to get involved. If we can pay one person to write code, it gets us only so far, but if we pay someone to make it easier for 100 developers to write code, that takes us much further. So we are looking into what will have the biggest long-term impact."

The community is also hoping to spend the grant on areas where they are not strongly supported by the current process. "Documentation happens to be one of the areas that is underrepresented, and it really eats the developers' time. It also needs a different skill set. If you ask a software developer to write user documentation, you sometimes get incomprehensible documentation, and you are also wasting the time of someone who would rather be doing something else. Plus you are leading the developer to quicker burnout. Working with some documentation professionals could help smooth out the whole development process, keeping it fun and more productive."

The KDE community greatly values this $200,000 donation and is looking very closely at how to maximize its impact.

The Author

Swapnil Bhartiya is a writer and journalist covering Linux and open source for more than 10 years. He is also a science fiction writer whose stories have been broadcast on Indian radio and published in leading Indian magazines. He founded an open source web magazine while living in Europe. Swapnil currently resides in Washington, DC.

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