An alternate history of KDE

The Nokia years for Qt are over, how did KDE fare?

When Nokia announced it would be selling its Qt assets to Digia, a lot of people were concerned that Digia's ties to Microsoft would put the popular free software tools in danger.

In reality, the deal makes perfect sense, and Qt is now clear of its tenure with Nokia. So how did Qt and KDE do under Nokia's influence?

If Digia sounds familiar, it's because the company was already heavily involved in the Qt community. In 2011, not long after Nokia announced its intention to place its fate in the hands of Windows-based smartphones, Nokia sold the commercial Qt support business to Digia. Selling over the trademarks, copyrights, and other assets to Digia just completes a transition that started back in March of 2011.

At the time, Nokia's Sebastian Nyström laid out the reason for that sale, indicating that the commercial licenses sales of Qt "are not core business activities for Nokia, so since the introduction of the LGPL license for Qt in 2009 we have been actively working to grow the number of companies providing Qt services."

Ironically, Nyström also emphasized Nokia's "long-term commitment to Qt" in 2011. Long-term, in this case, must mean 17 months.

All of this shuffling around might make observers worry about KDE, the desktop environment that extensively uses the Qt libraries. But fortunately, when Trolltech was bought by Nokia in 2008, a licensing agreement was worked up with the KDE Free Qt Foundation that prevents any commercial holder of Qt from closing up development on Qt and thus mortally wounding KDE.

"Under the terms of the KDE Free Qt Foundation, an agreement between Nokia and KDE, Nokia is obliged to continue the development of Qt and to release it as Free Software," wrote openSUSE Community Manager Jos Poortvliet in July of this year. "This obligation will pass on to another entity should Nokia decide to discontinue its Qt activities and sell its assets. If the agreement of the KDE Free Qt Foundation is not fulfilled, KDE will receive the last released version of Qt under the BSD license. KDE has a firm position that the terms of the KDE Free Qt Foundation are binding."

While Qt and KDE are technically safe under the terms of this agreement, it's hard not to wonder if KDE hasn't been adversely affected by this four-year association with Nokia. It's a hard thing to fathom: on the one hand, Qt (and by association KDE) was no doubt buoyed by the commercial presence (i.e., cashola) of Nokia in the community. But on the other hand, we haven't seen a major release of KDE (4.0) since 2008--just days before Nokia announced it was buying Trolltech.

Adding to that, Nokia released Qt 5 until the April, 2011, and a roadmap for KDE Frameworks 5.0 wasn't put in place until August, 2011.

It could be coincidental, of course, and it's not like KDE wasn't chugging along with significant point releases during the Nokia years. It's just the timing seems a little odd.

Would KDE have been better or worse off? I think worse. While work on the desktop may have slowed (and I recognize that point can be disputed), Nokia was able to keep QT and the surrounding community focused on other work, such as mobile tools and environments. I think this focus kept the KDE community at large from falling into the state of wandering that seems to be plaguing the GNOME community. You can disagree with the directions that Nokia was taking Qt and KDE, but at least there was a direction--something GNOME lacked and is only now rediscovering.

The past is just that now: the past. There's little sense in worrying about it now that KDE 5.0 is on the way and KDE and Qt will be playing a part in the new Vivaldi tablet. But like any Harry Turtledove fan, it's hard not to wonder about the KDE That Might Have Been had Nokia never been part of its history.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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