Archive for the ‘Qt’ Category

Diving into Plasma’s 2015

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014
Sea anemone with anemone fish

Sea anemone with anemone fish

TL;DR: The coming year is full of challenges, old and new, for the Plasma team. In this post, I’m highlighting end-user readiness, support for Wayland as display server and support for high-dpi displays.

Before you continue reading, have a gratuitous fish! (Photo taken by my fine scuba diving buddy Richard Huisman.)
Next year will be interesting for Plasma. Two things that are lined up are particularly interesting. In 2015, distributions will start shipping Plasma 5 as their default user interface. This is the point where more “oblivious” users will make their first contact with Plasma 5. As we’re navigating through the just-after-a-big-release phase, which I think we’re mastering quite nicely, we approach a state where a desktop that has so many things changed under its hood is becoming a really polished and complete working environment, that feels modern, supports traditional workflows well, and is built on top of a top-notch modern modularized set of libraries, KDE’s Frameworks.

In terms of user demographic, we’re almost certain to see one thing happening with the new Plasma 5 UI, as distros start to ship it by default, this is what these new users are going to see. Not everybody in this group of users is interested in how cool the technology stack lines up, they just want to get their work done and certainly not feel impeded in their daily workflows. This is the target group which we’ve been focusing our work on in months since summer, since the release of Plasma 5.0. Wider group of users sounds pretty abstract, so let’s take some numbers: While Plasma 5 is run by a group of people already, the number of users who get it via Linux distributions is much larger than the group of early adopters. This means by the end of next year, Plasma 5 will be in the hands of millions of users, probably around 10 million, and increasing. (This is interpolated from an estimation of Plasma users in the tens of millions, with the technology adaption lifecycle taken as base.)

The other day, I’ve read on a forum a not particularly well-informed, yet interesting opinion: “Plasma 5 is not for end users, its Wayland support is still not ready”. The Plasma 5 is not for end users, I do actually agree with, in a way. While I know that there is a very sizable group of people that have been having a blast running Plasma since 5.0, when talking about end-users, one needs to look at the cases where it isn’t suitable. For one, these give concrete suggestions what to improve, so they’re important for prioritization. This user feedback channel has been working very well so far, we’ve been receiving hundreds of bug reports, which we could address in one way or another, we have been refining our release and QA processes, and we’ve filled in many smaller and bigger gaps. There’s still much more work to do, but the tendency is exactly right. By ironing out many real-world problems, each of those fixes increases the group of users Plasma is ready for, and improve the base to build a more complete user experience upon.

What’s also true about the statement of the above “commenter on the Internet” is that our Wayland support isn’t ready. It is entirely orthogonal to the “is it ready for end users?” question. Support for Wayland is a feature we’re gradually introducing, very much in a release-early-release-often fashion. I expect our support for this new display server system to reach a point where one can run a full session on top of Wayland in the course of next year. I expect that long-term, most of our users will run the user interface on top of Wayland, effectively deprecating X11. Yet, X11 will stay around for a long time, there’s so much code written on top of X11 APIs that we simply can’t expect it to just vanish from one day to the other. Some Linux distros may switch relatively early, while for Enterprise distros, that switch might only happen in the far future, that doesn’t even count existing installations. That is not a problem, though, since Wayland and X11 support are well encapsulated, and supposed to not get in the way of each other — we do the same trick already on other operating systems, and it’s a proven and working solution.

Then, there’s the mission to finish high-dpi support. High DPI support means rendering a usable UI on displays with more than 200 DPI. That means that UI elements have to scale or be rendered with more detail and fidelity. One approach is to simply scale up everything in every direction by a fixed factor, but while it would get the sizing right, it would also negate any benefit of the increased amount of pixels. Plasma 5 already solves many issues around high-dpi, but not without fiddling, and going over different settings to get them right. Our goal is to support high-dpi displays out of the box, no fiddling, just sensible defaults in case a high dpi display gets connected. As there are 101 corner cases to this, it’s not easy to get right, and will take time and feedback cycles. Qt 5.4, which is around the corner, brings some tools to support these displays better, and we’ll be adjusting our solutions to make use of that.

It seems we are not quite yet running out of interesting topics that make Plasma development a lot of fun. :)

Plasma’s Road to Wayland

Friday, July 25th, 2014

Road to WaylandWith the Plasma 5.0 release out the door, we can lift our heads a bit and look forward, instead of just looking at what’s directly ahead of us, and make that work by fixing bug after bug. One of the important topics which we have (kind of) excluded from Plasma’s recent 5.0 release is support for Wayland. The reason is that much of the work that has gone into renovating our graphics stack was also needed in preparation for Wayland support in Plasma. In order to support Wayland systems properly, we needed to lift the software stack to Qt5, make X11 dependencies in our underlying libraries, Frameworks 5 optional. This part is pretty much done. We now need to ready support for non-X11 systems in our workspace components, the window manager and compositor, and the workspace shell.

Let’s dig a bit deeper and look at at aspects underlying to and resulting from this transition.

Why Wayland?

The short answer to this question, from a Plasma perspective, is:

  • Xorg lacks modern interfaces and protocols, instead it carries a lot of ballast from the past. This makes it complex and hard to work with.
  • Wayland offers much better graphics support than Xorg, especially in terms of rendering correctness. X11’s asynchronous rendering makes it impossible to be sure about correctness and timeliness of graphics that ends up on screen. Instead, Wayland provides the guarantee that every frame is perfect
  • Security considerations. It is almost impossible to shield applications properly from each other. X11 allows applications to wiretap each other’s input and output. This makes it a security nightmare.

I could go deeply into the history of Xorg, and add lots of technicalities to that story, but instead of giving you a huge swath of text, hop over to Youtube and watch Daniel Stone’s presentation “The Real Story Behind Wayland and X” from last year’s LinuxConf.au, which gives you all the information you need, in a much more entertaining way than I could present it. H-Online also has an interesting background story “Wayland — Beyond X”.

While Xorg is a huge beast that does everything, like input, printing, graphics (in many different flavours), Wayland is limited by design to the use-cases we currently need X for, without the ballast.
With all that in mind, we need to respect our elders and acknowledge Xorg for its important role in the history of graphical Linux, but we also need to look beyond it.

What is Wayland support?

KDE Frameworks 5 apps under Weston

KDE Frameworks 5 apps under Weston

Without communicating our goal, we might think of entirely different things when talking about Wayland support. Will Wayland retire X? I don’t think it will in the near future, the point where we can stop caring for X11-based setups is likely still a number of years away, and I would not be surprised if X11 was still a pretty common thing to find in enterprise setups ten years down the road from now. Can we stop caring about X11? Surely not, but what does this mean for Wayland? The answer to this question is that support for Wayland will be added, and that X11 will not be required anymore to run a Plasma desktop, but that it is possible to run Plasma (and apps) under both, X11 and Wayland systems. This, I believe, is the migration process that serves our users best, as the question “When can I run Plasma on Wayland?” can then be answered on an individual basis, and nobody is going to be thrown into the deep (at least not by us, your distro might still decide to not offer support for X11 anymore — that is not in our hands). To me, while a quick migration to Wayland (once ready) is something desirable, realistically, people will be running Plasma on X11 for years to come. Wayland can be offered as an alternative at first, and then promote to primary platform once the whole stack matures further.

Where at we now?

With the release of KDE Frameworks 5, most of the issues in our underlying libraries have been ironed out, that means X11-dependent codepaths have become optional. Today, it’s possible to run most applications built on top of Frameworks 5 under a Wayland compositor, independent from X11. This means that applications can run under both, X11 and Wayland with the same binary. This is already really cool, as without applications, having a workspace (which in a way is the glue between applications would be a pointless endeavour). This chicken-egg situation plays both ways, though: Without a workspace environment, just having apps run under Wayland is not all that useful. This video shows some of our apps under the Weston compositor. (This is not a pure Wayland session “on bare metal”, but one running in an X11 window in my Plasma 5 session for the purpose of the screen-recoding.)

For a full-blown workspace, the porting situation is a bit different, as the workspace interacts much more intimately with the underlying display server than applications do at this point. These interactions are well-hidden behind the Qt platform abstraction. The workspace provides the host for rendering graphics onto the screen (the compositor) and the machinery to start and switch between applications.

We are currently missing a number of important pieces of the full puzzle: Interfaces between the workspace shell, the compositor (KWin) and the display server are not yet well-defined or implemented, some pioneering work is ahead of us. There is also a number of workspace components that need bigger adjustments, global shortcut handling being a good example. Most importantly, KWin needs to take over the role of Wayland compositor. While some support for Wayland has already been added to KWin, the work is not yet complete. Besides KWin, we also need to add support for Wayland to various bits of our workspace. Information about attached screens and their layout has to be made accessible. Global keyboard shortcuts only support X11 right now. The screen locking mechanism needs to be implemented. Information about Windows for the task-manager has to be shared. Dialog positioning and rendering needs to be ported. There are also a few assumptions in startkde and klauncher that currently prevent them from being able to start a session under Wayland, and more bits and pieces which need additional work to offer a full workspace experience under Wayland.

Porting Strategy

The idea is to be able to run the same binaries under both, X11 and Wayland. This means that we (need to decide at runtime how to interact with the windowing system. The following strategy is useful (in descending order of preference):

  • Use abstract Qt and Frameworks (KF5) APIs
  • Use XCB when there are no suitable Qt and KF5 APIs
  • Decide at runtime whether to call X11-specific functions

In case we have to resort to functions specific to a display server, X11 should be optional both at build-time and at run-time:

  • The build of X11-dependent code optional. This can be done through plugins, which are optionally included by the build-system or (less desirably) by #ifdef’ing blocks of code.
  • Even with X11 support built into the binary, calls into X11-specific libraries should be guarded at runtime (QX11Info::isPlatformX11() can be used to check at runtime).

Get your Hands Dirty!

Computer graphics are an exciting thing, and many of us are longing for the day they can remove X11 from their systems. This day will eventually come, but it won’t come by itself. It’s a very exciting time to get involved, and make the migration happen. As you can see, we have a multitude of tasks that need work. An excellent first step is to build the thing on your system and try running, fix issues, and send us patches. Get in touch with us on Freenode’s #plasma IRC channel, or via our mailing list plasma-devel(at)kde.org.

Five Musings on Frameworks Quality

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

Gratuitious ape photo

Musing…


In many cases, high-quality code counts more than bells and whistles. Fast, reliable and well-maintained libraries provide a solid base for excellent applications built on top of it. Investing time into improving existing code improves the value of that code, and of the software built on top of that. For shared components, such as libraries, this value is often multiplied by the number of users. With this in mind, let’s have a closer look of how the Frameworks 5 transition affects the quality of the code, so many developers and users rely on.

KDE Frameworks 5 will be released in 2 weeks from now. This fifth revision of what is currently known as the “KDE Development Platform” (or, technically “kdelibs”) is the result of 3 years of effort to modularize the individual libraries (and “bits and pieces”) we shipped as kdelibs and kde-runtime modules as part of KDE SC 4.x. KDE Frameworks contains about 60 individual modules, libraries, plugins, toolchain, and scripting (QtQuick, for example) extensions.

One of the important aspects that has seen little exposure when talking about the Frameworks 5 project, but which is really at the heart of it, are the processes behind it. The Frameworks project, as it happens with such transitions has created a new surge of energy for our libraries. The immediate results, KF5’s first stable release is a set of software frameworks that induce minimal overhead, are source- and binary-stable for the foreseeable future, are well maintained, get regular updates and are proven, high-quality, modern and performant code. There is a well-defined contribution process and no mandatory copyright assignment. In other words, it’s a reliable base to build software on in many different aspects.

Maturity

Extension and improvement of existing software are two ways of increasing their values. KF5 does not contain revolutionary new code, instead of extending it, in this major cycle, we’re concentrating on widening the usecases and improving their quality. The initial KDE4 release contained a lot of rewritten code, changed APIs and meant a major cleanup of hard-to-scale and sometimes outright horrible code. Even over the course of 4.x, we had a couple of quite fundamental changes to core functionality, for example the introduction of semantic desktop features, Akonadi, in Plasma the move to QML 1.x.
All these new things have now seen a few years of work on them (and in the case of Nepomuk replacing of the guts of it with the migration to the much more performant Baloo framework). These things are mature, stable and proven to work by now. The transition to Qt5 and KF5 doesn’t actually change a lot about that, we’ve worked out most of the kinks of this transition by now. For many application-level code using KDE Frameworks, the porting will be rather easy to do, though not zero effort. The APIs themselves haven’t changed a lot, changes to make something work usually involve updating the build-system. From that point on, the application is often already functional, and can be gradually moved away from deprecated APIs. Frameworks 5 provides the necessary compatibility libraries to ease porting as much as possible.
Surely, with the inevitable and purposeful explosion of the user-base following a first stable release, we will get a lot of feedback how to further improve the code in Frameworks 5. Processes, requirements and tooling for this is in place. Also, being an open system, we’re ready to receive your patches.
Frameworks 5, in many ways encodes more than 15 years of experience into a clearly structured, stable base to build applications for all kinds of purposes, on all kinds of platforms on.

Framework Caretakers

With the modularization of the libraries, we’ve looked for suitable maintainers for them, and we’ve been quite successful in finding responsible caretakers for most of them. This is quite important as it reduces bottlenecks and single points of failure. It also scales up the throughput of our development process, as the work can be shared across more shoulders more easily. This achieves quicker feedback for development questions, code review requests, or help with bug fixes. We don’t actually require module maintainers to fix every single bug right away, they are acting much more as orchestrators and go-to-guys for a specific framework.

More Reviews

More peer-review of code is generally a good thing. It provides safety nets for code problems, catches potential bugs, makes sure code doesn’t do dumb thing, or smart things in the wrong way. It also allows transfer of knowledge by talking about each others code. We have already been using Review Board for some time, but the work on Frameworks 5 and Plasma 5 has really boosted our use of review board, and review processes in general. It has become a more natural part of our collaboration process, and it’s a very good thing, both socially and code-quality-wise.
More code reviews also keeps us developers in check. It makes it harder to slip in a bit of questionable code, a psychological thing. If I know my patches will be looked at line-by-line critically, it triggers more care when submitting patches. The reasons for this are different, and range from saving other developers some time to point out issues which I could have found myself had I gone over the code once more, but also make me look more cool when I submit a patch that is clean and nice, and can be submitted as-is.
Surely, code reviews can be tedious and slow down the development, but with the right dose, in the end it leads to better code, which can be trusted down the line. The effects might not be immediately obvious, but they are usually positive.

Tooling

Splitting up the libraries and getting the build-system up to the task introduced major breakage at the build-level. In order to make sure our changes would work, and actually result in buildable and working frameworks, we needed better tooling. One huge improvement in our process was the arrival of a continuous integration system. Pushing code into one of the Frameworks nowadays means that a it is built in a clean environment and automated tests are run. It’s also used to build its dependencies, so problems in the code that might have slipped the developer’s attention are more often caught automatically. Usually, the results of the Continuous integration system’s automated builds are available within a few minutes, and if something breaks, developers get notifications via IRC or email. Having these short turnaround cycles makes it easier to fix things, as the memory of the change leading to the problem is still fresh. It also saves others time, it’s less likely that I find a broken build when I update to latest code.
The build also triggers running autotests, which have been extended already, but are still quite far away from complete coverage. Having automated tests available makes it easier to spot problems, and increases the confidence that a particular change doesn’t wreak havoc elsewhere.
Neither continuous builds, nor autotests can make 100% sure that nothing ever breaks, but it makes it less likely, and it saves development resources. If a script can find a problem, that’s probably vastly more efficient than manual testing. (Which is still necessary, of course.)
A social aspect here is that not a single person is responsible if something breaks in autobuilds or autotests, it rather should be considered a “stop-the-line” event, and needs immediate attention — by anyone.

Continuous Improvement

This harnessing allows us to concentrate more on further improvments. Software in general are subject to a continous evolution, and Frameworks 5.0 is “just another” milestone in that ongoing process. Better scalability of the development processes (including QA) is not about getting to a stable release, it supports the further improvement. As much as we’ve updated code with more modern and better solutions, we’re also “upgrading” the way we work together, and the way we improve our software further. It’s the human build system behind software.

The circle goes all the way round, the continuous improvement process, its backing tools and processes evolve over time. They do not just pop out of thin air, they’re not dictated from the top down, they are rather the result of the same level of experience that went into the software itself. The software as a product and its creation process are interlinked. Much of the important DNA of a piece of software is encoded in its creation and maintenance process, and they evolve together.

Locale changes in Plasma Next

Monday, May 19th, 2014

One of the things that take care of internationalization of Plasma is the locale. Locale is a container concept that includes Wikipedia defines Locale as “a set of parameters that defines the user’s language, country and any special variant preferences that the user wants to see in their user interface”. There have been some changes in this area between Plasma 4.x and Plasma Next. In this article, I will give an overview of some of the changes, and what it means for the user. I’ll exclusively talk about the locale and although there is some overlap between Locale and Translations, I’ll concentrate just on the locale for now.
kcmformats_thumb
In Qt5, the locale support has seen a lot of improvements compared to Qt4. John Layt has done some fantastic work in contributing the features that are needed by many KDE applications, to a point where in most cases, KLocale is not needed anymore, and code that used it can now rely on QLocale. This means less duplication of code and API (QLocale vs. KLocale), more compabitility across applications (as more apps move to use QLocale), less interdependencies between libraries, and a smaller footprint.
This is one of the areas where porting of applications from KDE Platform 4.x to KDE Frameworks 5 can cause a bit of work, but it has clear advantages. KLocale is also still there, in the kde4support library, but it’s deprecated, and included as a porting aid and compatibility layer.

In Plasma, we have already made this transition to QLocale, and we’re at a point where we’re mostly happy about it. This also means that we had to revisit the Locale settings, which is probably the single component that is most visible to the user. Of course the locale matters everywhere, so the most fundamental thing is that the user gets units, number formats, currencies and all that presented in a way that is familiar and in line with overall regional settings. There’s a bunch of cases where users will want to have more fine-grained control over specific settings, and that is where the “Formats” settings interface in systemsettings comes in. In Plasma 4.x, the settings were very much based on either using a common setting and overriding specific properties of that in great detail. You could, for example, specify the decimal separator as a string. This allows a lot of control, but it’s also easy to get wrong. It also does not cover all necessary cases, as the Locale is much more subtle than can be expressed in a bunch of input boxes. Locale also has impact on sorting, collation of strings, has its own rules for appending or prepending the currency.
QLocale, as opposed to the deprecated KLocale doesn’t allow to set specific properties for outside users. This is, in my opinion, a valid choice, and can be translated in a fashion that is more useful to the user as well. The Formats settings UI now allows the user to pick a regional/language setting per “topic”. So if you pick, for example “Netherlands” for currency, and United States” for time, you’ll get euros, but your time will display with AM/PM. So UI has moved, so to say to using a region and language combination instead of overriding locale internals.

The mechanism we’ve put behind it is simple, but it has a number of advantages as well. The basic premise is that systemsettings sets the locale(s) for the workspace, and apps obey that. This can be done quite easily, following POSIX rules, by exporting variables such as LANG, LC_CURRENCY, LC_TIME, etc.. Now if the user has configured the locale in systemsettings, at next login, these variables will be exported for apps that are run within that session to be picked up. If the user didn’t specify her own locale settings, the default as set by the system is used. QLocale picks up these variables and Does The Right Thing. A “wanted side-effect” of this is that applications that do not use QLocale will also be able to pick up the locale settings, assuming they’re following the POSIX standard described above. This means that GTK+ apps will follow these settings as well — just as it should be within the same session. It also means that if you run, for example LXDE, it will also be able to have apps follow its locale, without doing special magic for Qt/KDE applications.

Progressing towards Next

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

In the Plasma team, we’re working frantically towards the next release of the Plasma workspaces, code-named “Plasma Next”. With the architectural work well in place, we’ve been filling in missing bits and pieces in the past months, and are now really close to the intended feature set for the first stable release. A good time to give you an impression of what it’s looking like right now. Keep in mind that we’re talking Alpha software here, and that we still have almost three months to iron out problems. I’m sure you’ll be able to observe something broken, but also something new and shiny.

For the first stable release of Plasma Next, we decided to focus on core functionality. It’s impossible to get every single feature that’s available in our long-term support release KDE Plasma workspaces 4.11 into Plasma Next at once. We therefore decided to not spread ourselves too thin, and set aside some not-quite-core functionality for now. So we’re not aiming at complete feature parity yet, but at a stable core desktop that gets the work done, even if it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that some of our users might be used to, yet.

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Apart from “quite boring”, underlying “system stuff”, we’ve also worked on the visuals. In the video, you can see an improved contrast in Plasma popups, effects in kwin have been polished up to make the desktop feel snappier. We’ve started the work on a new Plasma theme, that will sport a flatter look with more pronounced typography than the venerable Air, and animations can now be globally disabled, so the whole thing runs more efficiently on systems with slow painting performance, for example across a network. These are only some of the changes, there are many more, visible and invisible.

We’re not quite done yet, but we have moved our focus from feature development to bugfixing, the results of that are very visible if you follow the development closely. Annoying problems are being fixed every day, and at this rate of development, I think we’re looking at a very shiny first stable release. Between today and that unicorn-dances-on-rainbows release lie almost three months of hard work, though, and that’s what we’ll do. While the whole thing already runs very smooth on my computers, we still have a lot of work to do in the integration department, and to translate this stability to the general case. Systems out there are diverse and different, and only wide-spread testing can help us make the experience a good one for everybody.

Are your Qt builds going OOM?

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

If you’re, like me, regularly building Qt, you probably have noticed a decent hunger for memory, especially when linking Webkit. This part of the build can take well over 8GB of RAM, and when it fails, you get to do it over again.

The unfortunate data point is that my laptop only has 4GB, which is enough for most (but one) cases. Short of buying a new laptop, here’s a trick how you can get through this part of the build: Create a swap file. Creating a swapfile increases your virtual memory. This won’t make it fast, but it at least gives Linux a chance to not run out of memory and kill the ‘ld’ process. Creating a swapfile is actually really easy under Linux, you just have to know your toolbox. Here’s the quick run-down of steps:

First, create an empty file:

fallocate -l 4096M /home/swapfile

Using the fallocate syscall (which works for newer kernels, but only for btrfs, ext4, ocfs2, and xfs filesystems), this can be done fast. In this example, I have enough space on my home partition, so I decided to put the swapfile there. It’s 4GB in size, which should be plenty of virtual memory to finish even the greediest of builds — your mileage may vary. If you’re not able to use fallocate, you’ll need a bit more patience and dd.

As your swap should never be readable by anybody else than root, change its permissions:

chmod 600 /home/swapfile

Next, “format” the swapfile:

mkswap /home/swapfile

Then, add it to your virtual memory pool:

swapon /home/swapfile

You can now check with tools like `free` or `top` (tip: use the much nicer `htop` if you’re into fancy) that your virtual memory actually increased. Once your build is done, and you need your disk-space back, that’s easy as pie:

swapoff /home/swapfile
rm /home/swapfile

If you want to make this permanent (so it’ll survive a reboot), add a line like the following to your fstab:

/home/swapfile none swap defaults 0 0

This is just a really quick tip, more details on this process can be found in the excellent Arch Wiki.

Next means Focus on the Core

Friday, February 21st, 2014

The metaphor of a home make-over crossed my mind today, and I think it implies a few ideas that connect to Plasma Next quite well.
Plasma Next
Plasma Next is a new iteration of the Plasma workspaces. This is the first time, that KDE’s workspace is released independently from its underlying libraries and the applications accompanying it. It is built upon KDE Frameworks 5 and Qt5. “Plasma Next” is our name for the development version of Plasma, the final product will not be called “Next”. The planned release does not include the applications that are shipped today as part of the KDE Software Compilation. Applications, just like the Frameworks follow a different release schedule. Of course it’s entirely possible to run KDE SC 4 Applications on a Plasma Next desktop, and vice versa.

We have now settled on a release schedule for Plasma Next, which plans for the first stable release in June. It’s a good time to talk about what’s to expect in this first release. I think we’ve got some pretty exciting improved technology in the works. As our new baby shapes up, let’s take a look at what’s old and what’s new in more detail.

Frameworks 5

Plasma Next bases on KDE Frameworks 5, which is a modularized version of the venerable KDE development platform, kdelibs and friends, so to say. This results in a reduced footprint in terms of dependencies. The Plasma libraries and runtime components are one of those Frameworks itself, providing the tools to build applications and workspaces. Plasma has been one of the early adopters of Frameworks 5, mainly for the reason that we had to do some development in parallel. While building on an unstable base wasn’t always easy, it certainly has its benefits: We could check the viability of the Frameworks goals, and catch regressions early on. A good test harness only goes so far, actually building a real world application with the libraries makes sure they’re stable and functioning. These days, the issues are gone, KDE Frameworks has stabilised enough that applications can be ported quite easily.
With the move to Frameworks 5 come some architectural changes that allow us to cut out some “runtime fat”, we can get rid of some separate processes with the new architecture, which results in a leaner system for the user.

QtQuick for the UI

Plasma Next wallpaper selection

Plasma Next wallpaper selection


The transition to QtQuick reaches a very significant milestone in Plasma Next: the whole UI is written in QML. This concludes a transition process which we’ve started in Plasma 4.x, as a side-effect it solves a whole class of long-standing quality and maintenance problem in the code, it means a higher quality for many users. The transition to QtQuick-based UI has been fairly smooth so far, so we are not jumping onto something entirely new here, which means that we have been able to port much of the existing and matured functionality from Plasma 4.x over to Plasma Next. Our QML APIs have not changed radically, so porting existing code written in QML to Plasma Next is not a huge amount of work. For add-ons written in other languages (UIs written in C++, Python and other languages are currently not supported, this is a conscious design decision, and unless there are QML bindings for these languages (which seems like a weird idea), this is unlikely to be supported in the future. Instead we’ve improved and matured the QML API to a level where it’s very easy to create almost anything you can dream of in QML.

New Graphics Stack

Plasma’s graphical stack reaches a new state-of-the-art this year. We are now able to fully offload the rendering of the UI into threads, and other processes, making the UI responsive by default. We also offload visual effects almost entirely onto the graphics card. This means that it’s faster, so you get better framerates out of it, it frees up CPU time for the user and it’s also more energy-efficient, so saves some battery life.
In case the system falls back to software rendering, we can now centrally disable animations, so even on systems that paint slowly, or we can reduce repaints drastically to give a snappy feel. This means that the visual effects in the UI degrade gracefully with available graphics features on the system. For the vast majority of users, this isn’t an issue anyway, their systems run a fully hardware-accelerated desktop with complete ease. On these systems we can improve the user experience by using the graphics card’s capability — and not only that: The transition to QtQuick 2, which is part of Qt5 means that all the work at UI level can be offloaded onto the GPU as well.

Another hot topic these days is Wayland readiness. This is currently work in progress, Martin Gräßlin’s blog shows some impressive progress on running KDE applications on Wayland. This is one of many important milestones. The most complex case is running a full Wayland session with Plasma and KDE applications, and we are not there yet. Wayland support is continuously improved.

Polished Interaction

Let's try a dark theme

Let’s try a dark theme


Next to these architectural changes, we’ve also put some work into the actual UI visuals and interaction. We are in the process of establishing a Visual Design Group in KDE. Which already participates in the development of Plasma Next. The first results of this will be visible this summer, and the group is currently hashing out plans for the future. There is some serious design love appearing. You can follow the progress of it on the wheeldesign blog.

One of my favourite new features that has recently landed is Marco’s work on contrast behind translucent dialogs, which hugely improves readability in many cases, and make “the old Plasma” almost look bland in comparison. We’ve cleaned up quite a lot of workflows, not by making them any different, but by removing visual noise in between. The idea is to polish common elements to feel fresh and like an upgrade to users, but not entirely different. In the UI, known behavioral patterns are kept in place, with more pronounced core functions, and less fuzz around them. We’re aiming at keeping all the functionality and adaptability in place. To the user, the migration to Plasma Next should feel like an upgrade, not something completely new, but trusted after a bigger step in its evolution, yet recognizably true to its values.

We want to achieve this by concentrating on the core values, on what makes us good, and what users love us for. But we also do not want to pass the opportunity to fix what nags us and our users. Improvements in details mean that we listen to our users, a large portion of which do not want to be the subject of UI experiments, but who require a reliable system that supports and improves the personal workflows they have almost brought to perfection.

Of course, all of these workflows rely on many details behaving as they do, and these things are different for everyone. A small difference in behavior, or a missing seemingly minor feature might make or break any given workflow, there is no guarantee to be made, just a promise of best effort.
Many, but not all parts are co-installable, and it will be possible to use KDE SC 4 applications in a Plasma Next environment, and vice versa.

Beyond Devices

Plasma Next runs on top of a device-independent shell. The whole UI is structured into logical blocks that can be exchanged at runtime, this allows for dynamic switching the user interface to suit a different form factor. A target device will typically have the plasma-shell (and runtime bits) installed, and one or more device-specific shells. We are now readying the first of these “workspace user experiences”, Plasma Desktop. Others, such as the tablet-oriented Plasma Active UX will join in subsequent releases.

When will it be good enough for me?

While no .0 will ever be perfect, I expect that Plasma Next.0 will feel very much like an evolutionary step to the user, and certainly miles away compared to the impact of Plasma in KDE 4.0. For those that still remember the transition from KDE 2.2 to KDE 3.0, this seems rather comparable. While KDE 2 was almost a complete rewrite of KDE 1, the 2 to 3 transition was much less radical and far-reaching. We saw the same pattern between KDE 3 and 4, which again was quite radical, especially in and kdelibs and even more so for the workspace — Plasma which was completely new in 4.0.

In the first stable release of Plasma Next we want to provide a stable and fully functional core desktop. We concentrate on making the most important default functionality available, and are polishing this first and foremost. I expect that most users can be just happy with this first release, but as I said, there’s no guarantee, and maybe you’re missing something. For those that want to make the switch later, we have of course our long-term maintained current Plasma stable, so there’s no rush.
This concentration on the core also means that not every single feature will be available immediately. We are, however aiming at feature parity, so in most cases, a missing feature in .0 will be brought back in a later release. The kdeplasma-addons module, which contains additional functionality will likely not be ported by summer.

Ultimately, the way to make a good Plasma Next happen is to lend us a hand and take part. Even better, you don’t have to wait with this until summer. Take the plunge, build KDE Frameworks 5 and Plasma Next, try it and help us completing the core functionality and to fix bugs. That is exactly what we will be doing in the next months leading up to the release this summer, and we hope the experience will be delightful one for our users.

DBus-Activated Systemtray Plasmoids

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

In this article, I’m describing a way to dynamically load Plasmoids into the systemtray. It’s interesting for you if you develop Plasma addons, or if you’re interested in the design of Plasma by KDE.

One of the wishes that came up during the latest Plasma sprint in Barcelona was a more dynamic way of showing functionality in the systemtray, that little notification area sitting in the panel next to the clock. The systemtray can have different kinds of “things” in them: Statusnotifiers, which are basically systray icons of applications, and Plasma widgets, which allows for much more functionality and freedom in UI development. Statusnotifiers are instantiated by applications, so their lifetime is entirely in the hands of the application they belong to. For Plasma widgets, this is a bit different, they’re currently loaded on startup. Ideally, we want to load specific services on-demand, say when a specific service becomes available.

You may have guessed by the title already, this feature has now landed in Plasma Next. It was actually quite easy to do, yet it’s a very powerful feature. First, let’s see what it looks like:

This feature allows loading and unloading Plasmoids when dbus services come and go. Applets can specify in their metadata which service should control their lifecycle.

This has the following advantages:

  • We can dynamically only load widgets when they’re useful, reducing clutter in many cases
  • Applications can provide widgets that appear and disappear based on the application running
  • We can load controls for system services dynamically as they come and go
  • It makes it easier to delay loading of widgets in the systemtray until when a specific service appears, cutting down startup time
  • It makes widgets and their features more discoverable as they’ll be able to appear automatically

One immediate user for this is the media controller widget, which will now only be loaded once an MPRIS2-compatible media player is running (as indicated by a dbus interface becoming available on the session bus.)

How do you do that? It’s quite easy. Two things need to be done: the widget should indicate to be loaded into the systemtray automatically, and it needs to specify a service which triggers loading it. That’s two lines in your metadata.desktop file, looking like this for example:

X-Plasma-NotificationArea=true
X-Plasma-DBusActivationService=org.mpris.MediaPlayer2.

That’s all. Enjoy your cleaner, more dynamic systemtray!

Reasonable DPI in Plasma Next

Friday, February 7th, 2014

We are currently looking into how we can improve Plasma (but in extension also other applications, including QWidget-based ones) on hardware that sports unusually high DPI (also called “reasonable DPI”). In this article, I’ll outline the problem space and explain our tools to improve support for high DPI devices in Plasma.

First, let’s take a step back, however, to explain the problem space to those who haven’t yet spent that much thinking on this. Most of today’s desktops and laptops have have roughly the same amount of pixels per square inch of screen space. The amount of pixels per inch is measured in DPI (dots per inch) or PPI (pixels per inch). This value is around 100 DPI for laptops. Tablets and smartphones are already available with much higher DPI screens, making for sharper fonts and overall higher fidelity graphics. A while ago, Apple has started producing laptops with high DPI displays as well, these are the so-called Retina screens. There are Macbooks on the market with 220 DPI.

Test Plasmoid showing a scaled UI

Test Plasmoid showing a scaled UI

Some people have complained for years about the low DPI value of screens available on the market (and I am one of them), higher DPI simply allows for nicer looks, and reduces the need for “dirty tricks” such as subpixel rendering algorithms (which come with their own set of problems). Graphics chips also have become fast enough (and with enough memory) to not have a problem with high resolutions (think 4K on your laptop, for example).

I’ve done some research (Well, lazy-webbing, mostly), and it seems that higher DPI screens for desktop systems, but also for laptops are still quite rare, and when you find one, they’re often really, really expensive. I believe this is caused by two reasons: production-line quality is not always good enough to produce high DPI screens, one could say that the more pixels there are on a given device, the higher the chance that one or more of them are dead, making the display unsellable, and thus increasing the price of the ones that are pixel-perfect. Also, tablets and smartphones, which often already sport high DPI screens are currently taking up almost all of the production capacity. The obvious result is scarcity and a high price. I believe it’s only a matter of time until high DPI displays become more common, however. A few friends of mine already have high DPI displays, so there is a real need to support this kind of screen well.

Battery Widget without icon scaling

Battery Widget without icon scaling

So what’s the problem? Many applications assume a fixed DPI size, or at least that the DPI value of the screen is within a certain range, so that when you render an icon at 22 pixels, it will look like a small icon, compared to text, and that its details are visible. Also, icons and sizing of fonts are loosely related, so an icon that is way smaller than the size of the text as rendered will look weird and cause layouting problems. (Imagine huge letters and cut off text, for example.)
For graphical elements, this is a real problem, but less so for text. Today’s text rendering engines (Freetype, for example) take the DPI value of the screen into account. This means that this at least partly solves our problem. Luckily, it solves the problem for very complex cases, so at least this is not of great concern. It’s only a partial solution, however, so this at best eases finding a complete solution. We need to fix these problems in different areas, and all need to have well-thought out solutions.

Limitations in X11

The bad news is that this problem is only partly solvable in an X11 world. X11 has no real concept of different DPI values per screen. This is not so much a problem for single screen systems — we just use the DPI of the only screen. As soon as you attach a second screen that has a different DPI, this is going to be a problem, and it’s not possible to solve this completely in an X11 world. We’re planning to first make it work in a single DPI environment, and then work towards supporting different DPI values per screen. (Of course we’ll keep multi-DPI-screens in mind, so that we don’t have to take too many steps back once we are actually in a position to be able to support this. This means Wayland, basically.)

Battery Widget using icon scaling

Battery Widget using icon scaling

Cheating with fonts

A pretty easy, yet neat solution is to use font metrics to compute sensible dimensions for graphical elements on the screen. The very short version is to stop thinking in numbers of pixels, and to start thinking in lines of text and with of characters as they end up on the screen. This is not a pure solution to the DPI problem, which in many cases is actually an advantage. The size (for example height) of a given letter rendered on the screen depends on a number of properties:

  • The DPI value of the screen which is used to render the text
  • The font size setting
  • The size of the font itself, as it is designed (this is usually more relevant for the aspect ratio between width and height)

This means that taking the font height as rendered, we actually can compute values for sizing elements that not only take the low-level technical properties of the hardware into account, but also user preferences (or system presets). In Plasma 2, we started using this mechanism in a number of places, and so far we’re pretty happy with the results. Some examples which where we use this is the sizing of popups coming out of the panel (for the notification area and the calendar for example), but also the sizing of the icons in the notification area (or system tray). This means instead of hardcoding pixel sizes, these UI elements grow and shrink depending on your settings. This solves a part of the problem, but is obviously not a complete solution. If you would like to implement this mechanism, here’s two snippets of code, which, with some necessary adaption, you can use to make your app work well on High DPI devices.

in Qt C++ code:

const int fontHeight = QFontMetrics(QApplication::font()).boundingRect("M").size().height();

This gives you the height of the letter “M” as it would be rendered on the screen. It’s a useful mechanism to get you a pixelsize that is dependent on the DPI value of the screen. Note that you want to use an int here, in order to not end up aligning UI elements at half pixels, as this leads to blurriness in your UI.)

We’ve bridged this API in the Plasma Theme class, which is available from QML applications by importing org.kde.plasma.core (the global property theme will be automatically set, which allows you easy access to Plasma::Theme from everywhere, in case you’re wondering where the “theme” variable is coming from).

import org.kde.plasma.core 2.0 as PlasmaCore

/* Paint an orange rectangle on the screen that scales with DPI 
   This example makes the rect big enough to paint about 8 rows
   of text (minus spacing), and allows for a column with of about 
   60 characters. Mileage varies on fonts used, and the text 
   itself, so this is an approximation.
 */
Rectangle {
    width: theme.mSize(theme.defaultFont).height * 8
    height: theme.mSize(theme.defaultFont).width * 60
    anchors.margins: units.largeSpacing

    Item {
        anchors.fill: parent
        /* ... more stuff ... */
    }
}

In the second example, you see that we’re using another property, “units.largeSpacing” for the margins. This is another piece of DPI-dependent UI which you can use to apply margins and spacing that take DPI (actually font-as-rendered-settings) into account.
To get the size of a piece of text on the screen, in QtQuick code, you can use the paintedWidth property of a Text elements, but not that this can be tricky due to text elision, line breaks, etc., so this is to be dealt with with care.

Icons and other graphical elements

Another interesting case which affects the usability of our graphcal interfaces on high-DPI screens is the sizing of icons. We are using standard sizes there, which you access via properties “units.iconSizes.small”, “units.iconSizes.large”, etc.. In Plasma, these sizes now get interpolated with the DPI value of the screen, while making sure the icons are still getting rendered correctly. The sizing is done in steps, and not linearly to avoid getting washed-out icons. This mechanism works well and automatically solves another piece of the puzzle. The result of doing this is a more balanced look and better alignment and spacing across some widgets (notably the battery gains quite a bit of beauty with this treatment).
In other UI elements, especially the toolkitty widgets we provide in PlasmaComponents, we often already scale with the text, which works just fine for reasonably-but-not-excessively high DPI values. We have done some experiments with scaling up the graphical elements that are used to, for example, render a button. As we are using SVG graphics throughout the user interface, we don’t have to resolve to dirty tricks such as doubling pixels, and we can get quite neat results. This needs some more work, and it hasn’t been merged into master yet.

The Higher-Level Picture

Now, having discussed lots of technical details, how does the user-facing side of this look and work? The changes we’ve done right now only affect the user in one way: More UI elements scale with the DPI of the screen, this means no change for displays around 100 DPI. On my laptop (which has a 180 DPI screen), this gives a more balanced picture.
As Plasma is making its way onto a wider range of target devices (think tablets, media centers, as well as high-dpi laptops or monitors), this topic becomes increasinly important. I have good hopes that we will be able to solve this problem in a way that really leverages the power of this kind of hardware. In Plasma Next, we’re now providing some of the basic tools to make UIs work well on high-DPI displays, and we’ll continue this route further on. The user will notice that in Plasma Next, most of the problems that could be seen on high DPI screen are gone, and that the whole behaves much better without many tricks.

Plasma and a new beginning

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

The Plasma team is meeting in Barcelona, Spain these days to work on the next major version of KDE’s popular workspaces. As we are in a transition period, technically and organisationally, this is a very important meeting. I won’t go into too many details in this post, as they are still being fleshed out, but to give you an idea what we are talking about, here’s a quick run-down of some of the things we talked about.

Process & Transpareny

We do not have firm technical results, we are sharing the proposals we come up with here in the meeting on the Plasma mailinglist for feedback first. This is a change we are making in our development and decision-making process. In the past, we sometimes got the feedback that the Plasma team as a group appears a bit too exclusive to the outside. This stands in contrast to its architectural position. One of the things that make it very interesting to work on Plasma is the scope. This scope is usually work on the workspace UI, and of a specific technology. User interfaces don’t stand on themselves, but they express something and allow access. Examples are hardware integration, where issues like powermanagement, device management, etc. have to be presented in the workspace in a way that first of all makes sense technically, but that also is consistent with the way other “things” are presented, and that is beautiful and engaging with the user, while getting out of the way of doing real work. This is a thin line to walk, and in order to achieve great results, it needs close involvement from all sides.

Related to this is the transparency in decision-making processes. Some people have complained that decisions have been made inside a tight group, and that they don’t feel to be part of this process. This stands in the way of team growth (and no growth means shrinking), making it hard to maintain a high level of quality on the one hand, and on the other hand to improve existing functionality and develop new features. We want to change this. Of course this must not stand in the way of firm direction, but the responsibility has to be shared by more people, meaning that not one person is seen as responsible for more controversial changes, but we as a team stand behind it. This reduces stress on individuals, and leads to a fairer distribution of also the negative sides of responsibility.

Social environment

Lately, we’ve been struggling with an unwelcoming atmosphere in the Plasma communication channels. We’ve talked about this issue, and everybody present agreed that in order to keep our working environment pleasant, we have to be more friendly and respectful to each other. It’s totally not acceptable to lash out against each other, or to answer emails in condescending ways, to talk to people assuming they’ve bad intentions or anything like that. We need to rebuild some mutual trust, but we also need to step in when things threaten to escalate. As an in-person meeting is a good opportunity to talk about these issues in person, this was an important topic. My personal feeling is that we have reestablished strong standards, and everybody is on the same page and willing to defend this newly found balance. We all share the same goals, and we want our working environment to be friendly and enjoyable, as this forms the baseline for being productive and achieving great results as a team.

Drinking from the firehose

Finally, another topic was the situation of Plasma issues in KDE’s Bugzilla. We have a lot of bugs, and are currently lacking the resources to handle this stream of incoming bugs. We do need to do something about this, since it’s an important tool for support and to increase the quality of our codebase, and in extension the user experience. This means that we will, for the technological transitions deprecate a number of bugs of which we know fairly certainly that they do not apply in Plasma 2 anymore. We’ll also draw clearer boundaries around components supported by the core team (essential functionality), and community-supported addons. This means that we will be able to categorize and prioritize better, and hopefully get a grip on the rather messy situation in our issue tracker. Right now, trying to make sense of the issue reports for Plasma very much feels like this:

Visual Guidelines

On the design side, we’ve started on visual guidelines. This is a tool for us to achieve greater beauty and consistency across the components. Plasma 1 feels, in some places, like a collection of individual, separate components. This is of course true, and it has specifically and purposefully designed like that — it’s a good thing technically, but the architecture should not bleed into the visual appearance. We’ve done a lot of work to ensure visual consistency in our components, and we’d like to take this to the next level. For this reason, we’ve worked on visual design guidelines. We’ve taken the new Plasma calendar as a starting point, since that resonated very well with the community, and with professional designers, and we started to extract guidelines that are commonly applicable also to other parts. This is about usage of fonts, spacing and alignment. On the technical side of this, Digia’s Mitch Curtis, who works on the calendar components in QtQuick Components has joined us for a day of design, planning and hacking, so we have some really nice collaboration going on there as well.