When I wrote my recent article about KDE, it obviously made me feel nostalgic for KDE 3, which was the Linux desktop environment I first got accustomed to when using Linux for the first time, so I figured I’d fire up a virtual machine and try it out.

It was a bit weird using it for essentially the first time in over a decade, I was quickly reminded that despite my overall love of the platform I really disliked the tabbed KDE menu, maybe I’ve got a bit of a bias since I am used to how KDE works now, but I sincerely disliked that when you click on a Category like Internet that you would have to click on the back arrow button to go backwards. As soon as I came across that behaviour I switched to a more coventional, classic start menu.

It does look a bit date when using it when we have KDE plasma 5 available, if anything it gave me Windows 2000-vibes, but it ran fairly decent. If anything the easiest comparison is like going from iOS 17 on a modern iOS device to a 1-st gen iPod Touch that is running iOS3 - the device feels like a small toy and the interface is shiny.

I mentioned it in a previous article how the transition to KDE 4 was plagued with issues due to the significant overhaul that the developers made, which include switching to the new QT4 libraries, changes to the vsual interface, but also underlying changes to the architecture. These changes led to significant dissatisfaction amongst users due to initially bug issues, missing features, and perceived instability of the software.

In my case I felt like the software was fairly unstable and although I stayed around until the release of Amarok 2.0, I had steadily switched to using Gnome.

In dipping my toe back into KDE 3 again, I discovered the existence of the Trinity Desktop Environment, a fork of KDE 3 that is currently under active development. However, like many niche projects, it grapples with limited resources and a relatively small development team, resulting in biannual updates released in the spring and fall. We’ll delve deeper into Trinity later, but it seems to be an equivalent to the emergence of projects like Cinnamon and Mate, born in response to the release of Gnome 3.0, but for KDE as a result of the launch of KDE 4.

Running Kubuntu 8.04 with KDE 4 was an intriguing experience, marked by a unique contrast in the interface. The taskbar adopted a dark black tone, while application windows and title bars embraced a greyish silver color. Navigating the widgets was akin to the old macOS 10.8 Dashboard, providing an array of options through a top-right widget icon to add new widgets. Although adding widgets was a breeze, moving widgets proved a bit less user-friendly, requiring hovering over the widget and dragging it by the outlined frame.

The KDE menu retained a familiar feel from KDE 3, which included the annoying manner in which categories are navigated - by clicking on the corresponding back button with the mouse - this led to me to quickly opt for a conventional start menu layout.

Notably, JuK was the default audio player, and the shift toward Dolphin as the primary file explorer began to emerge. Despite allocating ample resources to the virtual machine, the overall experience still felt somewhat sluggish.

I tried out a newer version of KDE4 with Kubuntu 9.04, but that ended up being a mixed bag of observations. The taskbar was now at least using a shade of dark blue instead of the previous black taskbar.

While widget management has improved, you can now click on a widget and move it around the desktop, occasional system freezes persisted. Despite the improvements to the taskbar and widgets, I still encountered some slowness and frustrations with KDE4 despite the resources allocated for the virtual machine.

A Glimpse into the Trinity Desktop Environment (TDE)

While tinkering around with the various versions of Kubuntu, I stumbled upon the Trinity Desktop Environment (TDE). TDE is essential a desktop environment for Linux that continues the user interface and paradigms of KDE3.

In my initial tests, TDE showcased remarkable speed, reminiscent of the agile desktop environments like XFCE or LXQt. Despite its nimble performance, my research unveiled that TDE appears to rely on some outdated or obsolete components, one particular item that was highlight is that TDE uses a 10+ year-old networking stack. Despite the great performance of TDE, it does have some limitations that I noticed quickly: lack of support for screen resolutions exceeding 1080p and no compatibility with HiDPI screens.

Reflecting on KDE3 and TDE in a broader context, KDE3 stood out as a brilliant desktop environment with a wide app ecosystem for its users. The advent of KDE4 brought resource-intensive challenges and a need for a significant overhaul. An unfortunate consequence of this approach was that larger apps would be updated to meet the new technologies introduced with KDE4, smaller projects fell by the wayside.

Ironically, the transition to KDE4 coincided with GNOME’s gradual improvement, causing KDE to lose some of its popularity. Similarly, years later GNOME would encounter its own issues with the introduction of GNOME 3, leading to the emergence of projects like MATE and Cinnamon.

In the wake of these shifts, the Trinity Desktop Environment arose, taking the MATE and Cinnamon projects as examples, they attempted to revive the essence of KDE3. Despite its noble intentions, TDE faces hurdles, including outdated technology and a small development team.

While projects like MATE and Cinnamon found success, TDE’s journey involves a more substantial challenges as a result of their choice to fork the QT3 libraries rather than to incorporate the new versions of the QT library for TDE. This is in contrast to MATE and Cinnamon which started in a similar manner by continuing to use GTK2’s libraries, they eventually replaced GTK2 libraries with those from GTK3.

At the end of the day the lesson here lies in the delicate balance between evolution and maintaining the core appeal that users cherish in their desktop environments.