KDE is by far the Open Source project I used longer than all the others, of course excluding Linux itself, a few shells and to some extent GNU Emacs.
I first met the Kool Desktop Environment (KDE) when I was a student at university. At that time I was spending my time digging into this Linux-thing, as well as learning a lot of new cool Unix stuff.
At home, I had just installed a Red Hat 5.2, that was shipped with what I believe it was a prototype of some Gnome applications (I remember the configuration system was a GTK application). There was no KDE desktop at all.
At the university, there were machines running Debian GNU/Linux (with Gnome) and a few Solaris workstations with the CDE.
I liked CDE, I really did! It was quite clean to me, and I found the multiple desktop a very interesting idea. I also liked the panel with multiple menus, or docks or whatever their name was.
But my Linux box at home looked ugly, with FWWM2 and WindowMaker as the more advanced "desktops" available.
Later that year, I don't remember how, I found a distro called Mandrake.
And everything changed.
Mandrake was based on Red Hat (if my memory serves me well the numbering was pretty much the same) shipped with KDE installed as default desktop.
I was impressed from such piece of code: I felt at home with such an UI.
There was a dock, there were applications and a file manager that didn't suck (well, the Gnome one sucked for a while in my opinion), a lot of ready-to-go applications.
The look and feel was great, and it seemed that developers did spent a lot of time and effort in making all consistent. As an example, I remember even the window title animated when the size of the window did not suffice to make it all readable.
Well, at that time I was not doing a lot of stuff using Linux. I was just experimenting and trying to get some documents well written using an office suite (it was too early for me to learn some LaTeX!). Internet was something quite obscure outside of the campus, and I spent a few money chaning my winmodem to an external one that allowed me to use KPPP to connect to the Internet.
My KDE desktop had a classic configuration:
KDE did play an important role in my Linux conversion: the command line is quite scarying to anyone who is just learning, and having a fully integrated desktop (even more integrated than others) allowed me to sit in front of my computer and concentrate on learning, being assured that if I cannot do something via the CLI the UI would have done it for me.
So my university life continued using KDE and some KDE applications (e.g., the debugger) assisting me in the small homeworks. However the university was not using KDE at all, preferring Gnome desktops on both Linux and Solaris; I suspect the choice was done due to some issues between the Free Software Foundation and the Qt-KDE, as well as some major distro (like Red Hat) offering and supporting Gnome.
I have to admit that at some point in time, a few Solaris machines started prompting the user for a CDE/KDE alternative, but many students excluding me were using CDE because that was what the university teached us.
At that time it was a lot easier to find some help related to the Gnome desktop than to the KDE one, and the latter was something not well appreciated here in Italy, or at least not as strongly pushed as it was in Germany. But a few distros started shipping KDE and KDE-only installations, such as SuSE and Caldera. Feeling a little less alone in using my desktop of choice, I sticked with it and continued to use and explore.
I believe a huge jump in quality was at the time of KDE 2, where the "component" model become more and more apparent to the bare user. I'm not talking directly at KOM (and Corba related stuff), even if that was the engine under the hood, but to the fact that an application could do a many things because they were simply available to the desktop as a whole. So for instance you could open a PDF file into a web browser, or use a web browser to see a directory tree (and not with the horrible apache-like web interface), and stuff like that. That was a kind of impressive cohesion amongst the application components.
In those years I did not have a broadband Internet connection, so the only thing to do in order to have a fully fresh KDE desktop was to wait for some magazines to issue with a set of CDs. And most of the time updating from such CDs was a pain, and that was how I become quite good in doing backups and restoting a working machine from scratch, but this is another story.
By the way, at a point in time I got a Red Hat 9 shipped with KDE 3, which was really cool. The look and feel, the applications and the themes were pure eyecandy. And how to forget the great work done by Mosfet (and the incident that occurs with Pixie)?
That was the time of my master thesis.
Having acquired more confidence in the desktop itself, as well as in the toolchain required to build it, I started to build my own versions. That was not so simple, since I had to download all sets using the Internet connection of my job place and then let the computer doing the hard work. My poor Intel Celeron was busy all day compiling KDE in background, and you cna imagine how responsive it could have been at peeks! But it did not matter, in less than a week I could have a new KDE version up and running on my system!
The 3.3 release, with the bubble titles and that great icons was really impressive to me.
I did that until version 3.5, and then, shame on me, I switched to Microsoft Windows for a while. That's because I was doing a kind of University project, and having university laziness on me, I didn't want to spend a lot of time in configuring my laptop.
Luckily, as when you got drunk, the bad effects go away sooner or later, and so I quickly joined back KDE. At that time a distro in particular was famous in the KDE panorama: Kubuntu. I installed 6.04, if my memory serves me right, and liked the idea of having a KDE-specific distribution. I still use Kubuntu on a lot of machine of mines.
The jump to KDE 4 was quite a shock, even for me that I have followed the decisions and improvements. However, once I got used to the new interface and look and feel, I was at home again. And of course, I was not expecting the big vendors shift, but was running 4.0 as soon as it was considered stable. I laugh remembering a colleague of mine that, in the act of emulating, get messed with KDE 4.0 and was forced to switch back to something he knew better. He does not know KDE a lot even today, sorry pal!
Even if the desktop was not so complete as in previous versions, the ideas behind it were really promising. In particular the widgets and SVG graphic were winners in my opinion (and in fact were "migrated" to other popular proprietary platforms).
In the last years my KDE-aggressiveness has calmed down, and now I follow only stable and mature branches, even if I'm always excited when I get the opportunity to get a new release.
And yes, I've not switched yet to Plasma 5...I was a lot busy at the time. But I'm going to try it very soon.