Eike Hein

Interview date: Jan 4, 2007

A Short Intro

  • Age: Early twenties
  • Located in: Berlin, Germany
  • Occupation: Software and Computer Graphics
  • Nickname on IRC: Sho
  • Claim to Fame: Konversation, Yakuake
  • Fav. KDE applications: Kate, Amarok, the KDE file dialogs ;)
  • Homepage: http://www.eikehein.com/

The Interview

In what ways do you make a contribution to KDE?

I'm presently maintaining and developing Konversation, which aims to be a user-friendly IRC client for KDE, and Yakuake, a neat little window management idea around KDE's powerful Konsole technology. I've also contributed to usability and accessibility work over the past year, and a number of other apps here and there. And I'm one of the operators of #kde on IRC (freenode).

When did you first hear of KDE?

My first exposure to KDE was on Corel Linux, one of the first earnest attempts to put Linux on the desktop. Shipping in late 1999, that would have been KDE 1.x.

How and when did you get involved in KDE?

In early 2005 I had been lurking in various KDE-related IRC channels for a while, learning to navigate the community landscape and looking for an opportunity to get involved. I eventually started sending in a few simple patches to Akregator and Konversation in classic "scratch your own itch" fashion, and after a period of hand-holding was kindly encouraged by İsmail Dönmez to apply for a developer (SVN) account, which I did. The Konversation project was in a bit of a limbo at the time, badly broken in-between releases with most of the workforce preoccupied with other tasks within KDE or by their jobs, so I decided to step up and became one of its maintainers and its release manager.

What was your most recent commit to KDE?

Most recently I've been working hard on finishing up Konversation 1.0, which we then released on August 31st. It's a big milestone for the project and we're pretty proud of the substantial work that went into it.

Are you being paid to work on KDE?

Nope - I would love to be, however.

How much time do you usually spend on KDE?

It's hard to average. I spend some amount of time on KDE nearly every day: participating in development discussions, bug triaging, and I make it a point to do a lot of user support online. The coding happens in bursts. I set up deadlines I then scramble to make, pulling the odd insane stunt (example: three sleepless nights in eight days to make Konversation's most recent feature freeze date). Then I'm lazy for a while due to burnout until the next big burst. I'm trying to become a little more even in that.

Which section of KDE is underrated and could get more publicity?

The huge progress we're making on the HCI side of things lately, thanks to amazing people like Ellen Reitmayr, Celeste Lyn Paul and Olaf Schmidt, and our strong collaboration with OpenUsability. We're finally succeeding at making usability engineering an integral part of our development process, dispelling yet another myth about open source, and making much better software for it. In the early days, there were many people who claimed open source software would never be able to compete on the grounds of technological ability. We've proven them wrong, of course. They also said open source would never scale. They were clearly wrong on that one, too. Last year's received wisdom, then, was that open source would fail to ever take usability seriously - while work was already underway to fix the problem.

I think the critics will be positively surprised by what we're doing with KDE 4 in this regard, and by how quickly the open source process can adopt new ways when it spots an opportunity for self-improvement.

What do you think is still badly missing in KDE?

Looking at KDE 3, as a platform, we still need to do better at multimedia, do more of the heavy lifting so applications don't have to. We know from experience that app developers will surprise us with their creativity if we give them flexible, powerful platform services that eliminate the drudge work. In KDE 4, Phonon is all about doing that for multimedia. It's something I'm not involved with personally, but I'm very excited by the work being done. I look forward to using those frameworks very much.

Do you have any plans for KDE 4?

The big one is to make a KDE 4 version of Konversation, and rewrite large stretches of the application in the process. Most people regard IRC as a solved question these days - we feel differently. It's certainly true that Konversation owes a lot to the great programs that came before it, their design and the conventions they successfully established. But drawing upon the KDE platform, we can go further. A good example is the tight integration with the KDE Address Book we already have in the application, which ties IRC into your desktop-wide information workflow, with global presence notification for contacts and other great features. There's a lot of stunning new stuff coming with KDE 4 in this area - just have a look at Akonadi and Decibel - and we plan to take advantage of it.

In the same vein, I'd like to return to Akregator and work with Frank Osterfeld on some new features in the frontend, the shell part of things. Content aggregation is really a fun field to dabble in, you have enormous amounts of data at your hands and you can come up with many neat and useful things to do with them. I'm sure we'll have a blast.

Another task I hope to involve myself in is the ongoing work to change the way we handle font and color settings in KDE. In KDE 3, many applications - including Konversation - allow you to choose what fonts and colors their interface should use, which is of course a good thing. The problem is that if you change the global settings in KControl, you then end up having to hunt down apps that don't pick up on the changes and configure them manually, which is really burdensome. It's a big accessibility problem especially. Fortunately Olaf Schmidt from the KDE Accessibility working group has his mind set on doing something about it, so he sat down with a number of application developers to ask them what exactly their needs are, and together with us and the KDE Usability team came up with a series of designs for global preferences that cover more of the ground the app-specific preferences have so far been treading on their own, as well as new, standardized font/color selection and color scheme handling widgets that explicitly note deviations from the global defaults and can be used by all apps for greater consistency. This promises to make the lives of quite a few users easier, and now it needs manpower to be implemented.

What motivates/keeps you motivated to work on KDE?

Our user community. Those guys keep pushing us to new heights every day. And nothing beats making tools that help other people accomplish their goals faster and easier. Then there's the great people I have the pleasure to work with on KDE, who teach me so much about how to make software on a daily basis.

What chances do you see in your country for KDE as a desktop platform?

I think Germany has been amazingly receptive to the case we've made for open source software. If you look at adoption rates, and see things like the 40% market share Mozilla Firefox has been able to achieve in Germany - that's just stunning, nobody would have expected that a few years ago. There's a lot of interest in KDE, especially by medium-sized business, but also home users. The key here is the hard work our German localization team is doing. Our translators are the unsung heroes of any local market penetration.

Which text editor do you use? Why?

I'm a big vim fan, but I'm increasingly too lazy to drop into a terminal as Kate just gets better and better. I'd say I do most coding in Kate these days.

Which distribution do you use? Why?

Gentoo Linux, mostly because I really enjoy its toolset and the breadth of the project. The package manager is a lot less crufty than some of its older peers. And there's a great KDE frontend to it, Kuroo, one of the early success stories of our collaboration with the OpenUsability community. It's probably the best package management GUI I've seen so far, and it's tuned very well to Gentoo's particular audience.

I've also got Kubuntu on my Apple laptop, which is the distribution I recommend to friends and family these days. It's just that good as a general-purpose desktop. At Konversation, we have a great working relationship with them; Konversation release dates are scheduled in alignment with Kubuntu's. Their six-month release cycle fits us very well. They also help us by doing automated build tests and providing our users with nightly binary packages. Those guys rock.

What is KDE's killer app? Why?

I'd say Amarok is an application that has no meaningful competition on any other platform today, be it open or proprietary. And I know for sure that it has made music a lot more fun for me.

What does your desktop look like?

I aim for serenity:

What makes you develop for KDE instead of the competition?

I think one of the great strengths of how we do things in open source is that we can afford to look at the evolution of the desktop operating system as a sort of global discourse. In this global conversation, groups like Microsoft and particularly our friends at Apple are very important participants, and there's something to be gained from listening to what they have to say. However I feel that the discussion on our side of the room is a lot more lively these days, because we've found better ways to talk to each other than they have. We thrive on our capacity to freely exchange our ideas. It's a natural environment for innovation.

If you were shipwrecked and had to share an island with a KDE contributor who would it be?

Probably Peter Simonsson. Upon washing up on the shore, he'd look a bit peeved, then shrug, start building a boat and single-handedly paddle us back to the mainland. He's that kind of guy.

What is your most brilliant KDE hack?

To kick people's arses and get them to ship software.

What is your most embarrassing KDE moment?

I have yet to have one, I think - which is really a testament to how well KDE developers look out for each other and keep each other from making mistakes. Or maybe I'm just still waiting for my opportunity to screw up badly ;)

Did you go to Akademy in Ireland last year?

Nope, unfortunately not, due to scheduling clashes. It's particularly sad considering the great location we had this year with Dublin. It would have been a great excuse to finally finish reading those Joyce books, too.

Personal Questions

First things first. Married, partner or up for adoption?

Up for adoption.

Do you have any pets?

I used to have a cat, which sadly passed away late last year. So far I can't get myself to consider another feline companion.

Which book is on your bedside table?

"Perdido Street Station" by China Miéille and "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins. I tend to oscillate between fiction and more serious material.

Who or what in your life would you say influenced you most?

Probably my father, who, despite passing away in my early teenage years, imparted me with a strong sense of an engineer's work ethic. It took me a while to catch on to that in his absence, but in hindsight, the influence is clear.

Richard Stallman or Linus Torvalds?

I'd have to go with Richard. We certainly need the reliable, level-headed engineer type represented by Torvalds in droves - and thankfully KDE has them - but I feel we also need at least one guy at the extreme end of the ideological spectrum who keeps the debate alive. I think Richard knows that, and his dedication to the job is remarkable.

How would you describe yourself?

Young, wide-eyed and perhaps a little too enthusiastic about technology. I'm having a lot of fun, though.

What do you get passionate about?

One thing that never fails to inspire me is that free, open source software is not only useful in an immediate, practical sense, but due to its nature also a natural repository of vast amounts of knowledge about a multitude of subjects. Want to learn how a web browser works in practice? Read Konqueror's source code. Wondering how to model the solar system? Get a copy of KStars' source. Repeat for just about anything you can come up with. Open source code has taught me a lot, personally, and the thought that the work we're doing today will inform others in the future is extremely rewarding.

You're stuck on a train for 6 hours and are bored out of your skull. What do you do to amuse yourself?

At the moment, probably whip out my laptop and play with the great new QGraphicsView found in Qt 4.2, which is quickly turning out to be a KDE developer's favorite (check out Zack's blog). Or read the backlog of one of the many entertaining web comic strips around, if I can get a net connection.

What is your favourite place in the world?

The city. There's really no substitute for the big sprawl, although I'm guilty of not taking as much advantage of it as I should.

Final Words

Thank you for your work on People Behind KDE. It's always great fun to get to know my fellow developers a little better.