My Kingdom for a Browser!

This post is set to be one of the most painful entries I have ever written on this weblog. Not because the subject matter is particularly difficult, but because the technology has let me down.

The story starts with me upgrading my laptop to Kubuntu 8.10. It's been out for a while, and I'm a big fan of KDE 4, but I hadn't had a sufficiently quiet weekend in which to take the plunge. I was previously running Kubuntu 8.04, so I could have just downloaded the latest packages, but I wanted to start from scratch, for a couple of reasons.:

  1. I wanted to remove all the rubbish that I had installed over the last six months. I frequently download and install applications, only to find that they're not quite what I want. I rarely uninstall them, so over time my lhard disk fills with cruft.

  2. I wanted to wipe away all the stale config, especially as my window manager would be changing from KDE 3.x to KDE4. Besides, there's a certain pleasure to be derived from configuring a brand new KDE installation.

The install was a breeze, and for the first time ever all my laptop hardware was detected and configured correctly without any hacking on my part - even the weird web-cam, which doesn't even work in Windows XP. Life was good, until I went to browse the Internet.

KDE ships with Konqueror as it's default web browser. As far as web browsers go it's fairly nice - It lacks the large "Add-Ons" repository that Firefox has, but many of the plugins I can't live without when using Firefox are included as standard in Konqueror.

Konqueror is more than just a web browser though - the integration between konqueror and the rest of KDE is truly stunning (as an aside: this is why I prefer KDE over other desktops. Technologies like KPart and DBus are the future of desktop applications, and KDE is leading the charge in this area). As an example, if you want to search google for something, but don't have your browser window open, what can you do? Easy! just press Alt + F2 to open the "Run Command" dialog, and type "gg: " followed by your desired keywords. Hit enter and you'll launch Konqueror with the google results right there waiting for you.

Konqueror also has extensive protocol support. For example, SCP and SFTP are supported by default. Try typing something like "fish://user@host" - konqueror will as for the user password, and will then behave like a file browser for the remote machine.

These two examples hardly scratch the surface of what Konqueror can do. However - there are some very serious problems with it. Using GMail with Konqueror is torturous. First Google will give you the plain-old-HTML-only mode, since Konqueror isn't officially supported. Then, if you ask for the full version anyway you get all sorts of weirdness - and a completely unusable inbox. The solution seems to be to set the user agent to Safari 2.0, but even then my inbox seems to be incredibly slow.

Members of the KDE community have pointed out that GMail plays fast-and-loose with web standards, so it's understandable that Konqueror misses a few tricks. The Google engineers must have tested the javascript enhanced version of GMail with the most popular browsers, and left Konqueror out in the cold - and fair enough. However, the KDE developers are missing the point: no matter how good their browser is technically - no matter how standards compliant it is, it simply does not work for me - the user. I now have a browser that I cannot use to check my email (no, using the HTML-only version is not an option).

So what are the alternatives?

Before I upgraded Kubuntu I had Firefox installed. However, when I went to install it, I nearly had a heart attack. In order to install Firefox, I had to install 63 other packages - most of them gnome or GTK packages. The reason for this is simple: Firefox uses the GTK toolkit to provide a UI. I knew this already, but this early on in my new Kubuntu install I wasn't about to pollute my OS install with GTK packages.

What can I do? There are a few other options available to me:

There's been talk of a Firefox port to Qt. However, nothing usable has materialised yet, so that's off the cards.

There's the Arora browser - this is a Qt browser running the Webkit engine (which is included as standard in later Qt distributions). A quick install told me what I needed to know: also not really usable as my default browser.

Finally there's Google's offering: Chromium. However, this has not yet been ported to Linux.

So what's the underlying cause of my troubles? Without hacking the code directly, I have no idea. Perhaps this is part of the KHTML vs Webkit debacle - There's a good article outlining the whole issue here, but I'd like to quote a couple of paragraphs:

So, what's the situation? Well, it appears that KHTML will remain the web rendering engine for Konqueror going into KDE 4.0, and that it could be changed to qtWebkit as of KDE 4.1. That does not seem to be officially settled, so much as the most likely scenario. It appears that the KHTML team seems hesitant about the proposition, while many KDE developers and users alike have expressed a very receptive attitude toward seeing Konqueror user qtWebkit. And Rusin made clear to a reader that he believes the KHTML team should continue their work as long as they like.

The challenge is that Webkit, which comes from Apple, is widely tested, and is thus known to work well with a large number of websites. KHTML is not as widely tested, and, for example, GMail doesn't work well with Konqueror. Many Konqueror fans have expressed regret at having to keep Firefox around just for sites like GMail, that don't recognize KHTML. Using Webkit would solve these problems, enabling many users to stick to one browser.

In other words: "The developers are dragging their feet to implement a fix that would arguably make Konqueror a better browser". Of course, the developers involved are free to do as they please with their code, but they're dragging down the rest of the KDE platform - I now have to have multiple browsers installed to do the most basic of day-to-day tasks.

While the situation is frustrating in itself, the unfortunate fact is that similar things are happening all over the open source scene. Frequently developers get too caught up in making sure that their code is "right" (that may mean designed correctly, stable, cool, standards compliant, well integrated, or anything else the developer feels is important), and not enough time is spent making sure that the product is usable. I suppose this is one of the draw backs to a development methodology where there is no external pressure to develop your product.

Usability is king, and trumps all other concerns in a product. If it's not usable, it's no good.