Plasma Active Perspective: The User Story

Plasma Active brings a flexible, elegant, activity-driven user experience to a spectrum of devices. This article is part of a series of articles about different perspectives on Plasma Active. This installment looks at the user story, and aims at answering the questions “what does Plasma Active bring me as a user?”, what are the underlying concepts and how do we plan to achieve these goals.

For the user who wants to enjoy the Internet, multimedia and data away from his laptop or desktop, right now choices are rather slim. This means, for example, that you will choose a platform with some sort of critical mass, meaning that your favourite 3rd party apps are available, enough services supported, etc.. A Free software platform has to bring a lot to the table for users: There’s a lot of cool software available, systems such as Plasma Active offer a system without lock-in to a single vendor, but rather being able to take apps across vendors and devices. Plasma Active already comes with a good amount of interesting widgets, new ones are being developed all the time, the development platform is proven to be stable and working in real world use, and it’s easy for 3rd parties to develop and bring support for (even “4th” party) services. Plasma Active extends the Free software ecosystem into user experiences for devices, bringing a critical mass with it.

I personally use Plasma Active almost every day, I prefer the tablet form factor for “light reading”, checking on news, social networks, the blogosphere. For me it’s an ideal “on the couch in the living room” device, although I tend to use it in trains for reading and watching movies as well. With its powerful email client Kontact Touch it allows me quite conveniently read longer email threads. The virtual keyboard works well enough for entering short texts. For longer texts, I usually either plug in a keyboard and put the tablet into a stand, so it feels more like a ‘stationary laptop’.

User experience central

Plasma Active has been designed, from the ground up for the user. Our goal is to create an elegant experience for the user, with as little friction in the UI as possible. The device(s) support the user’s workflow, are ergonomic to use on a given formfactor. The device should get the work done, be fun to use and flexible enough to easily adapt to the user’s wishes and needs. In our development process, this is strongly reflected by the integral role designers play. Usability and interaction engineering is not an afterthought, but the driving force behind the work we do.

Mind-mapped UX

Contour, Plasma Active’s primary workspace uses semantic technologies to represent to the user. On a low level, this means that the user deals with photos, persons rather than .jpg files and email addresses. The semantic layer provides the data abstraction, including files, online resources, but also more abstract things such as locations. The Contour shell uses this information, and melds it with smart algorithms into a mapping for the user. The building blocks of this mindmap of the user’s digital life are activities. Activities are easily created, customized and removed, and you can use them go group similar items, bookmarks, widgets, apps, images, music tracks or videos. Activities allow you to organize all the interesting things you encounter while using your device. The Share Like Connect feature allows you to interact with these activities, so instead of generally bookmarking a website, you can also directly connect it to one of your activities and have it neatly organized among the rest of your digital artifacts.

Where are we going?

Plasma Active devices are interconnected and work together well, as they offer similar functionality across a range of devices. In Plasma Active One we’ve delivered the first bits that will lead to this goal: The Contour shell which gives a stronger connection between the user, his data and network and the device. In future releases, we will enhance Contour to provide more handles and “background support” to the user. Share-Like-Connect’s like and share features provides stronger connections to the (social) network, a perfect feature for the Free Culture community, and one of the strong selling points of Free Software (even if for many people outside the “geek crowd” perhaps not consciously). It will also be used to easily share anything across devices, imagine watching photos in a group, moving an interesting article from your desktop onto your tablet to read it on the couch or on the go, showing your friends on Facebook, Google+ and other social networks your preferences.

Plasma Active Perspectives

Plasma Active brings a flexible, elegant, activity-driven user experience to a spectrum of devices. This article is an overview of a series of blog posts I will be publishing over the coming days about different perspectives, or view points to Plasma Active.

Plasma Active One

As Plasma Active is a new user experience and integrated Free software stack for a range of devices, such as tablets, media centers, smartphones in-vehicle infotainment and $NEXT_POPULAR_FORM_FACTOR (tricorders, communicators, etc.).I will take the opportunity of our first release to explain Plasma Active’s underlying ideas in more detail. A series of blog will each tell the story behind Plasma Active from a different point of view. In the first installment, I’ll shed some light on the app story. We’ll look at Plasma Active’s answer to groupware, office and documents, multimedia and of course the web. In upcoming installments, we will look at Plasma Active’s developer story, its user story, its ODM and hardware story, and possibly more. With each installment, I will update the list below as the articles go online.

Plasma Active Perspectives: The App Story

Plasma Active brings a flexible, elegant, activity-driven user experience to a spectrum of devices. This article is part of a series of articles about different perspectives on Plasma Active. In the first installment, we look at a number of applications that come with Plasma Active. Kontact Touch, Calligra Active, Bangarang and a collection of Active Apps provide a stable and powerful set of functionality, making Plasma Active suitable for personal and professional use cases.

Email & Groupware: Kontact Touch

Kontact Touch's mail in Plasma ActiveIn the area of groupware and email, Plasma Active really shines thanks to Kontact Touch, a mature groupware suite designed specifically for touchscreen interfaces. Kontact Touch has all the features already known from its desktop counterpart, among which a vast variety of connectors to groupware servers, among which Exchange and Kolab. For on-the-go use-cases, Kontact Touch’s offline features are a big win, making it easy to catch up on what happened during offline periods. Kontact Touch’s email client performs really well on the underpowered tablet, even for insanely large mailboxes with tens of thousands of emails. Since Kontact Touch’s underlying data cache, Akonadi also feeds its data into the Nepomuk semantic store, all the groupware data is not locked into an application, but naturally available in Contour, becoming part of your activities.
Kontact Touch supports strong encryptions methods in an audible, open source code-base, satisfying even highly security- and privacy-aware use cases. There is a number of companies offering commercial support and services around Kontact Touch, and its integration in enterprise infrastructure.
Kontact Touch with its touch-friendly ergonomic interface, feature set, scalability, groupware server compatibility and strong contender satisfying unique use-cases for enterprise and institutional use-cases, allowing to organically extend an organisations groupware infrastructure onto new devices.

Office: Calligra Active

Another highlight in Plasma Active is Calligra Active. In Plasma Active One, we ship it as a beta version, with a stable follow-up planned for one of the next releases. The first release of Calligra Active will be a capable, performant document, finger-friendly viewer for tablets that can pan and zoom smoothly and display office documents. Calligra comes with excellent support for OpenDocument and compatibility with many of Microsoft’s office applications such as Word, Excel and Powerpoint.
With its capable engine, which is also part of the office suite on Nokia’s N9 and its touch-friendly user experience specifically built around Plasma Active, Calligra Active fills another important role by adding dependable office capabilities to Plasma Active devices.
Calligra Active builds on top of Plasma Quick and semantic engine, bringing a seamless UX between your activities and documents.

Web: Active Browser

The Active BrowserOne of the most important applications on a device is the web browser. For Plasma Active, we have developed a touch-friendly and lean web browser that builds on top of WebKit for HTML rendering, and the kdewebkit integration for cookies, network and SSL, caching and cookie sharing. Some of its features, such as AdBlock could be re-used from the Rekonq project. It uses the bookmarks from Nepomuk and shares these with the Contour shell. Building a customized web browser for Plasma Active ended up being the way to go after we had looked at alternatives, such as making Rekonq touch-friendly, or using Fennec, since the work to adapt these browsers really well would have been too extensive. Designing the browser from the ground up allows us to have it perfectly integrate with the Contour workspace and the rest of the system (such as sharing login credentials with widgets or other apps). While the Active Browser provides already a basic set of features, it is still a first release, that being a central part of Plasma Active will see further improvements. There are many good things we basically get for Free through Qt Webkit, such as 100% ACID compliance, excellent support for CSS, good performance and stability and a lot of “just works” for many websites around. The Active Browser does not manage bookmarks itself. It rather makes the currently open page known to Share Like Connect, so you can bookmark a page from the top panel — or connect it to your activity and thereby collect links on the go. Keeping multiple pages open and organized is aided by the peek area at the top, where you can find open pages belonging to your current activity.

Multimedia: Bangarang

Bangarang for MultimediaFor all your multimedia needs, we have pre-installed a slightly adapted version of Bangarang. Bangarang comes with an elegant interface, it provides a stable and feature-rich media player. Bangarang also uses the Nepomuk semantic layer as underlying data store, so its knowledge blends in with the Contour workspace and other applications and widgets. Additionally, Bangarang supports retrieving meta data from various online sources, and adds this lyrics, information about artists to your movies and music to your media. This data is transparantly available in the Contour shell as well. The Now Playing widget can be used as widget in your actvity as a remote control, for example for skipping a song, pause, play.

Widgets: Plasma

Bangarang and the Now Playing widget show nicely, how the Activities in the Contour workspace extend and adapt for different use cases. Media can be controlled directly from the activity (more useful for music) or viewed and managed in a fullscreen app. The data is not locked into a single application, and neither is the user. Like Now Playing, there are hundreds of useful widgets already available, as many of them can be reused from other Plasma workspaces, such as Plasma Netbook or Plasma Desktop. We have pre-selected a number of useful widgets, such as notes, weather, calendar, clocks (Plasma is, after all about clocks!), and a few fun others. In principle, all Plasma widgets are installable also on Plasma Active. On top of that, with Plasma Quick, we’ve made it very easy to create new widgets, or adapt existing ones — more on that in a later episode.

Traditional Applications

Plasma Active comes with a number of powerful applications. These, roughly fall into three categories: Active apps, touch-friendly apps, and everything else. Since Plasma Active builds on top of a well-known Linux stack, many applications from this “eveything else” group are readily avaiable. Among these a huge number of command-line tools which can be used using the Konsole terminal application which we have adapted for on-screen keyboard input.
Traditional desktop applications do run on Plasma Active as well, but they might or might not be suitable (or fun to use) on touchscreens. In our testing, we’ve seen varied success from simple showstoppers (“press space to start”) to flawlessly working and beautiful applications. Especially many games are well-suitable for Plasma Active, some even a lot more fun, such as KDiamond, Blinken, or . (You can tell, I’m not much of a gamer. :-))
Qt and KDE’s refined, system-wide UI settings allow us to take a few general measures, such as ensuring minimal button sizes, suitable text sizes, etc..

As it’s easy to install all kinds of applications, we categorizes applications in categories to make it easier for the user to find high-quality applications.
Active Apps are applications that are specifically designed or adapted to run in a Plasma Active environment. They work well on a given formfactor, are stable and functional, blend in well with the rest of the system (visually, but also through things like share like connect) and quality-controlled. Examples for Active Apps are the pre-installed webbbrowser, the image viewer, the news reader and of course Kontact Touch, our powerful groupware solution.
Touch-friendly apps are a set of applications we have specifically selected to compensate for functionality we have not yet a Plasma Active app for. These apps might not be super-elegant, but do the job well and fill in important functionality. Konsole and kwrite are good examples here, those have been fixed to work well with an on-screen keyboard. A lot of games fall into the same category, there is a good number that work surprisingly well on a touch-screen (Blinken my four year-old nephew’s favourite, KDiamond is mine).

Third Party applications

Users or device vendors can extend Plasma Actives with more applications. Next to a large number of Free software applications, the Plasma Quick stack allows for development of proprietary applications, as its libaries are available under the LGPL license. This allow vendors to extend Plasma Active with product-specific components, and makes available closed source 3rd party components (such as Flash or Skype) on Plasma Active devices.

Where do we go?

Plasma Active provides a place for application developers to bring their creations to new devices. On top of a proven stack, Plasma Active brings the building blocks for easy creation of user interfaces, and easy deployment on the device. Plasma Quick allows to use high-level scripting languages such as JavaScript and Qt Quick’s QML and adds access to all kinds of data and information to widgets. Plasma Active is not just tied to Plasma Quick applications, but it is an open platform able acting as runtime environment for a number of applications. We are also pro-actively looking at new technologies, such as HTML5 WAC, so we will be able to serve as runtime for these applications as well.