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KDE 4.3 is awesome

It’s been a busy few weeks at the university, with mid-year assessment (in all it’s various forms) having to take precedence over everything else.  Now that it’s over and students are on holiday, I’ve finally gotten around to doing the things I’ve been putting off for a while…like installing the beta version of KDE 4.3 on Kubuntu Jaunty.

The 4.x series of the desktop is getting more and more impressive with every iteration, so much so that I felt I needed to put it on show a little.  I’ve been playing around with it for a few days now and while it’s still a little buggy, it’s stable enough for me.  In this post, I’m going to go through some of the applications I use most often, and give my own thoughts about why I’m loving this update.

Desktop showing the Lancelot menu
Desktop showing the Lancelot menu
Folder view with expanding folders
Folder view with expanding folders

Desktop.  The Folder view widgets on the desktop do a great job of keeping it clean and useful, and I love the way they expand on mouseover to make navigation really easy and intuitive.  The Lancelot menu is brilliant, keeping unused applications out of the way, but making it simple to find them when needed.

Dolphin file manager with Konsole view (bottom)
Dolphin file manager with Konsole view (bottom)
Dolphin file manager with Split pane, Information, Places and File tree views
Dolphin file manager with Split pane, Information, Places and File tree views

File management.  There was a lot of controversy when the KDE developers decided to
create Dolphin and replace Konqueror as the default file manager, but it was clearly the right move.  There are a couple of things that I love about Dolphin, including the Information side panel, split view mode, Terminal view and the integration of Nepomuk semantic search.

OpenOffice.org word processor
OpenOffice.org word processor

Work stuff.  I tried using KOffice2 even though it’s a platform release (because it looks so very cool), but there are a few issues that keep me from switching from OpenOffice.org, the main one being that it doesn’t support OpenDocument or MS Word files as well as OpenOffice does, and the fonts look terrible.

BasKet note taking application (showing default example)
BasKet note taking application (showing default example)

I’ve installed and am using BasKet notepads for my note taking application, which unfortunately is still a KDE 3.5 application.  There were some concerns about the project stalling when the lead developer decided that he couldn’t continue maintaining it, but it seems as if it’s been taken up by others and may yet have a future.  I hope so because it’s a great application, even in it’s current state.  A project to watch out for in this field is SemNotes, a semantic note taking application being built on Nepomuk (see here for screencast).

Okular universal file viewer (showing PDF with annotations)
Okular universal file viewer (showing PDF with annotations)

Okular is a universal document viewer, although I don’t use if for much other than PDFs.  The feature I like most is the ability to annotate documents, although the default colour scheme of the notes isn”t great.

Calendar in Kontact
Calendar in Kontact

I used to use Kontact for email for the longest time but then I switched to Thunderbird for a while, then Spicebird and finally back to Kontact.  In terms of functionality, nothing comes close to it right now.  I’d like to say that I use Akkregator for my feeds, but it’s missing something that I can’t quite put my finger on.  The interface also hasn’t changed much in the past few years and it seems very slow.

Firefox web browser
Firefox web browser

I have to admit that I’m using the 3.5 preview release of Firefox as the web browser, rather than Konqueror.  While Konqueror was awesome a few years ago, it hasn’t kept up with the changes on the web, and is really starting to show it’s age.  There’s a lot happening at Mozilla that Konqueror jsut can’t keep up with and unless there’s a radical change of pace in it’s development, I can’t imagine using it again.

Amarok media player
Amarok media player

Multimedia.  I’m always switching between different media players, but generally I’ve been keen on Songbird and Amarok for managing my whole library, and Audacious as a light-weight player for quickly playing single files.  Gwenview (the image viewer) has been given an overhaul and

Gwenview in Browse mode with Information side panel on view
Gwenview in Browse mode with Information side panel on view

does a brilliant job of managing image libraries.  Amarok is a bit buggy right now (although I am running the beta version of 2.1) and it’s still lacking some functionality that was present in 1 (the port to Qt4 means a lot of catching up has to be done), which is why I use Songbird on occasion.  But as with other KDE apps right now, it’s in a state of transition and every release is building on the solid platform that was laid down with 2.0.

Marble desktop globe showing satelite view
Marble desktop globe showing satelite view

Marble.  This is a great tool that’s something along the lines of Google Earth and Maps, but it’s open and a native KDE application.  I’ve included these screenshots showing a satelite view, as well as a

Marble desktop globe showing Open Streetmap view
Marble desktop globe showing Open Streetmap view

street view using Open Streetmap.  It’s already got Wikipedia and Flickr integration for additional information, as well as being able to overlay additional data, like temperature and precipitation maps.  It’s a young project that’s come really far and has the capability to be incorporated into other KDE apps, like using it together with geo-tagging photos in Digikam.

The one thing that I can’t find anywhere is a decent podcast catcher…something like Gpodder for Gnome, but native to KDE.  I know that Amarok has one but it’s not working for me and besides, it’s lacking the finishing touches that would win me over.  Little things like being able to read a summary of the podcast would be so useful but is currently impossible.

I’m also not a fan of Kpackagekit, as it’s still very much in development and doesn’t always work very well.  Generally the command line is quicker anyway, but there’s always Synaptic if a GUI is needed.

Anyway, that’s a brief overview of some of the apps that i use and while most of them are still in beta, there’s so much happening in KDE right now that this post will be outdated very shortly.  Sigh…

If you’re interested in following the developments in KDE, check out KDE.News

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The semantic desktop and research papers

I’ve been following the idea of a semantic desktop for a few years now, waiting for someone to implement a framework that enables a user to actually do something that’s useful.  I think that time has come.  It seems as if KDE has managed to integrate the Networked Environment for Personalized, Ontology-based Management of Unified Knowledge (Nepomuk) into their new 4.0 release, and while it’s far from perfect (not least because of the hideous name), it seems at least to be a usable solution and manages to give us a glimpse of the power of the semantic desktop.

So, what’s a semantic desktop and why is it cool?  First, we have to understand why current filesystem managers aren’t cool.  The file/folder hierarchy has been around since the first graphical user interface and for the most part, has handled the task of providing users with a visual of the filesystem in an easy to understand way.  Of course, it’s only a metaphor and “files” and “folders” are actually scattered all over the disk.  The interface presents the information in a hierarchical and linear fashion, which is not even close to how we think about and organise information, and this is where we can start to see the system breaking down.  The metaphor of files and folders that we use for managing information on a computer has worked reasonably well until now.  What’s changed?

When I only had a few thousand files on my computer, it was pretty simple to put them into folders and more or less remember where they were.  Over time, I had to start using dates or descriptions in the files and folder names to give me more information about what it’s contents were.  Again, this served me well until I began my masters thesis and had to start working with large numbers of large documents.  Now, not only did I need to know where I could find certain information (eg. what folder a file was in), I needed to know “deeper” information, such as author, publication and perhaps most importantly, what ideas were in that document (remember, that “document” could include videos and audio files).  The default search application could only index the name and type of the file, so if my document name wasn’t descriptive enough (i.e. have author, title and main idea in it), it’d sometimes take ages to find what I was looking for just by searching.

This was partly solved with Desktop Search, which indexed not only the document location, name and type, but also all the text within the document (if it was supported).  Now we could search by keywords within documents.  Awesome.  Except sometimes ideas are not articulated using the same words across documents.  Or the ideas are related but not the same.  Or you could spell the word/s incorrectly and now your keywords don’t match the keywords in the database.  Besides, Desktop Search couldn’t index the text within an image or the ideas within a video.  So it was a great temporary solution but still not good enough.

It’s a big problem, especially for me.  I can name a file using  author and title, and if I have a good memory (which I don’t), I can maybe remember the gist of the ideas in the document with a few keywords included in the name of the file.  However, try doing that with a 150 page White paper or thesis that contains many different ideas or themes.  It gets worse.  Suppose I have multiple documents, all with different main themes but related subthemes (for example, contradictions of the same idea), or with the same ideas framed in different ways.  Suppose those documents actually deal with different topics in general but each comes to a similar conclusion and I’ve filed them according to the main idea in different folders.  Now I have to remember not only the author, title and main theme of the document, but also the subthemes and their relationships to other documents, in different folders, by different authors, with different titles.  What if their are multiple ideas relating to multiple other documents, as their often are?

As you can see, once you start dealing with large numbers of large documents, multiple themes or ideas and different relationships between all of these things, the file/folder metaphor breaks down pretty quickly.  So, what’s the solution?

The semantic desktop is an idea that has been around for a while but has taken a long time to bear fruit (I’m not sure why, although possibly because there’s not enough demand or because technology limited development).  It suggests that with the huge proliferation of content we store locally (photos, emails, music, text documents and everything else we hoard), finding information and remembering the relationships between that information is going to become increasingly difficult.  An example given often includes trying to remember who emailed you that image you want to show someone, but don’t remember where it is or what it’s called.  It’s the same idea as trying to find that article by that author who had that great idea (we find it easier to recall ideas, rather than specific information like author and location).

So, the semantic desktop is a framework that exists as a data layer within the operating system that “remembers” not only the relationships between objects on your computer (for example, the email address and name of the person who sent a photo) but can also store any metadata you ascribe to it.  Metadata is data about data, so the date information that’s encoded into your photo or the ID3 tag you apply to an MP3 is all metadata.  What if we could ascribe metadata to articles?

We can.  The good people at KDE (there may be others, although I’m not familiar with them) have implemented the Nepomuk framework into KDE 4.0 (another article here) and it seems to be working OK, although right now it’s quite limited.  At this point you can only apply tags to a document, provide a description and rate it.  While that doesn’t sound terribly exciting, think of the possibilities.  Now I can design textual Tags to loosely describe the main themes or ideas within a document (of course, multiple tags are possible, which means describing multiple ideas), as well as use the Description component to highlight the key features of the article, as well as any other information that might be useful.  The rating system could be used to define the strength of an article, for example, newspaper articles might get one star, while systematic reviews could be given 4 stars.

Now it’s possible to search through hundreds of documents in multiple folders (or all thrown together in the same document) by themes or ideas (tags) and quickly establish which of the documents dealing with those themes contain the key points (description) I want to review, as well as determine the strength of the article (ratings).

This is just the beginning of the potential that Nepomuk will bring to the desktop.  It’ll also create a system that will allow people to decide what information (and ideas) to share across distributed environments.  So for example, researchers on the same team can each have access to everyone’s information dealing with that project but not everyone’s personal data.  Sounds pretty cool to me.

Note: Nepomuk and KDE only run on Linux at this point.  However, Qt4 can be compiled to run on Windows, so the coolness could theoretically be coming to you soon.