Well, this ought to be interesting. Battle royale, except we have no gentry, just the two seemingly and arguably dominant desktop environments for Linux. In my humble and narrow perception, there has been a dramatic shift in the Linux desktop usage in the past several years. Come the season of Gnome 3, a split happened in the community, breaking the decade old Gnome-KDE dominance. A whole generation of desktop environments was born, forked and knifed. Unity took its own path, Gnome 2 returned as MATE, and Gnome 3 was eclipsed by Cinnamon. Only KDE remained as it was, and now it was facing a new rival.
Let’s introduce the players
Most of you need no lengthy words, as you are well familiar with both environments. Still, some verbiage is in order to create a boundary to our discussion. Let’s begin with KDE. We have an old veteran here, having undergone four major revisions and 10 minor ones. Long, long time ago, I can still remember how … No, wait, that’s a beginning of a different tune. As a software project, KDE was mostly born to address the simple question of aesthetics, which did not seem to have been a major focus of software development till then. One design to rule them all, and KDE took on shape, growing to become a cross-distro leader. Indeed, pretty much any Linux flavor out there has an edition or two running KDE, just for good measure.
On the other hand, in the beginning, Cinnamon was mostly a Linux Mint endeavor, created specifically for the said distro, after the developers realized they would not be able to tame Gnome 3 to their liking, even through a liberal use of extensions. What the team did was a rather cunning coup d’etat. They kept the Gnome Shell underpinnings, knowing they would not be able to sustain the entire stack on their own, and made some changes to the upper layer, the desktop and desktop controls, as well as the window manager. From there on, the effort expanded and bloomed. The rest is history, or rather, the future, as they say.
However, Cinnamon is not just a Mint project. In fact, it is a very decent and useful alternative for other distributions. Almost naturally, Ubuntu instantly benefits from using the framework. Even Fedora gets a nice boost of shine and class when graced with Cinnamon. Subjective, mileage may vary, as well as the quality of the roads.
Now, let’s see what KDE, the old guy can learn from the new kid on the block.
It is always easier for young startups to dictate a brutal pace of development. Cinnamon is no exception. Only two years since its launch, the desktop environment has gained quite a bit of popularity, having been received positively, both by Gnome 3 rejects, as well as the wider community looking for some fresh blood. While the actual revision figures do not signify much, Cinnamon is making steady progress in adding new capabilities and features, merging more and more of the desktop functionality into its own tree.
For example, Linux Mint Olivia with Cinnamon version 1.8 now contains all of the system settings under its own umbrella, and there’s no need for two or three different, conflicting menus to do that anymore. The desktop is getting richer, more colorful, with extra customization options, more themes, more applets, desklets, and other interesting features. With KDE, one might claim the well-established, almost laid back reputation to be almost detrimental to its growth. For instance, KDE4 took quite a few revisions to reach a stable and mature form, mostly because there was little risk to the project core. Cinnamon does not have that luxury, and has to adapt fast. So far, it seems to be working quite well.
All Linux desktop environments can be controlled and tweaked from the command line, or by editing configuration files, to some degree. With KDE, you have the plasmarc files. Cinnamon has the gconftool-2, which is a familiar carryover from the earlier editions of Gnome. That said, if you want to manually add new or custom KDE themes or icons and similar items, you will probably struggle a bit doing that without having to refer to the system settings UI, especially if you’re not exactly a command line ninja. With Cinnamon, the changes are much easier. Just grab the desired content, and extract the archives into specific folders in your home directory, and Bob’s your uncle. The changes will reflect immediately in the GUI drop-down menus, and you will be able to use your own additions easily. This way, you get the best of both worlds: command-line usage to get non-default content, and the menus to use them as if they were an organic part of the framework, without having to be familiar with tricky utilities and their syntax.
If you’re a Linux oldtimer, you might find this item laughable. You might say, Ctrl + Alt + Backspace. For any desktop environment. But what if you’re not an oldtimer, and you have made a change to your system, which is not reflected in the current layout? You may want to restart the session. Easy, log out, log back in. Is there a simpler way, though? Well, with KDE, it’s the matter of Alt + F2, then typing killall plasma && plasma. With Cinnamon, you have the magic button integrated into the bottom panel, so even newbies can find their way around without fiddling with unfamiliar commands. In this regard, Cinnamon takes the average user control of the desktop environment closer to the said user. This specific item may be a very limited use case, but it emphasizes the development and usage paradigm that imbues and drives the Cinnamon framework.
While we’re on the matter of accessibility, KDE has always followed the mantra of exposing all its features and options to the user, on an almost psychotic level. For example, if you’re not an experienced user, you will find the task of changing your desktop look & feel somewhat difficult. Possibly very tricky, even. The abundance can be overwhelming, despite significant progress throughout the 4.X family. Regardless, you will have to know the subtle difference between application appearance and workspace appearance, and then the meaning of desktop theme versus windows theme and how they affect one another.
This same problem is present in all system functions and tools, and even some of the native KDE applications, with the variety and range of options being detrimental to immediate user productivity. In spirit, Cinnamon does follow the Gnome KISS principle, and most of the stuff is kept away. Best of all, you get the normal and advanced presentation modes, which offer a lesser or higher amount of options, menus and sliders. If you’re not comfortable with too much tweaking, you can avoid the unnecessary torrent of information, and if you need the extra granularity, you get it.
Sense of belonging
When you get a mule for free, you shouldn’t complain about its teeth or whatnot. However, the sense of belonging is an important part of the Linux desktop equation, at least in year 2013 and counting. Quite a few users are disillusioned with some of the bigger distributions over the ideological changes making way into the software. Indeed, this is one of the reason why many Ubuntu consumers, at least the more experienced ones, have decided to step away from the parent distribution and embrace Mint. The feeling of being listened to, even if it does not have any real, deep market impact, can be a crucial factor, especially since there is no money involved to forge entitlement or fanboyism with the clients.
Because of its size, age and well-established reputation, KDE has become an amorphous, international entity. You can probably influence the shape and direction of the project to some extent, but the chances are your voice will be lost in a sea of opinion and ideas. With Cinnamon, there is still a close-knit brotherhood, a-la King Henry V on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, and you are most welcome to read the speech as Shakespeare wrote it down. The intimacy may yet vanish should Cinnamon grow to gigantic proportions, but at the moment, it’s a clear advantage to all of those dabbling in Linux, who do not see market share, growth or Windows takeover as their primary goals. From the technical perspective, it means the software mimics the mood and taste of its operators. And it seems to count, a lot.
KDE could benefit by going back to being a people’s desktop environment, using Linux Mint and its success with Cinnamon as the case study in user experience. It’s not an easy task, but there’s an important lesson to be learned out there, somewhere, from this.
Both KDE and Cinnamon are viable, successful, handsome choices for your Linux desktop.You will not go wrong if you choose either this or that one, so it’s the matter of taste and preference really. Still, it is possible to learn from and build upon each other’s strengths, or use them as inspiration for future development.
As far as KDE is concerned, it can gaze at its spicy little brother and scribble a few valuable lessons. Cinnamon is a fast, agile, nimble, lithe project, as my mastery of Thesaurus just shows. Cinnamon also tries to cater to a wide range of users, with a clear separation and minimalistic aesthetics as the leading ideals. Moreover, Cinnamon happens to be that much easier to tweak and tune, as it has a friendlier, simpler, user-oriented stack. Last but not least, Cinnamon is the darling desktop, because it cares about its users, and in return, the users care about Cinnamon. Love all the way, an unexpected turn of fate in the sarcasm-laced Linux world.
Next week, we will discuss the other side of the coin – What Cinnamon can learn from KDE.
Be excellent to each other and party on.