Plasma Active Perspectives: The Developer 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 “How do we get developers interested in Plasma Active?”.As I’m quite a bit behind on my series of perspectives on Plasma Active, so let’s try to catch up a bit. I’m trying bit of an experiment Marco and I talked about last night: Using personas not only for user stories, but also for our developer story.

Chad – The Casual Developer

Chad is a 23 year old developer. Chad has basic (but much to his regret not highly advanced) programming skills. In order to manage complexity, he mostly works in JavaScript. Concepts like cross-compiling code, packaging and deployment are alien to him, ideally he can avoid them entirely. Chad’s main interest is to transfer cool ideas for apps he has into reality. Chad does this work next to his studies, as Freelancer.

Chad’s IDE of choice is Plasmate, a simple IDE entirely geared towards creating Plasma addons. Plasmate guides the user to the whole workflow: creating a new app template, coding the app, testing it and deploying it to one or more target devices, and publishing it using online services. By providing these features all in a single tool that is small and easy to install, we maximize Chad’s gain for the brain he put into the code. While Plasmate is (purposefully limited to “pure scripted” Plasma components (such as Plasmoids, apps) it takes away most of the system learning and allows to fully concentrate on the creative process. Resulting applications are platform indepdenent and can easily be installed on test devices, directly from Plasmate. Complexity of the process is reduced as much as possible. The powerful KDE Frameworks allow to include advanced functionality in Chad’s creation, resulting in rich and visually appealing apps.

Lwing – The seasoned app developer

Lwing is a seasoned C++ developer. She has been working on various mobile and embedded platforms, as well as desktop applications. Lwing would like to bring SqueezeIt! one of her own desktop apps to a wider range of devices. For that, she chose Plasma as being the only truely Free and open system in the world. (Yep, shameless, shameless plug :).

Lwing’s way to success involves a bit more complexity. The recommended way is using the Mer SDK and Open Build Service (OBS) to cross-compile her code and get it deployed to devices. The Mer SDK is quite easy to set up and provides a build environment that produces reproducable results and takes away a lot of the complexity (and therefore pain) from the process of deploying an existing app to a new system. Combined with tools such as KDevelop or Qt Creator and supported by lots of excellent documentation, for Lwing, sky is the limit. Lwing thusly refactors SqueezeIt! to strongly separate data, busines logic and presentation. She designs her UI so it scales to different screen sizes, and implements it using Plasma Quick (Qt Quick plus Plasma QML Components). Libraries and development packages Lwing needs are already pre-installed in the SDK, so she doesn’t have to worry about that, other than updating the SDK once in a while from withing using the zypper package management tool. For usability and design questions, Lwing consults the human interface guidelines, which make it easier for developers to create applications that feel like they belong and are consistent with existing components. When she’s happy, she offers the app through her OBS project, and uploads a premium version with a few more advanced feature for a little money in the Make*Play*Live Addon Store.

Brian – The passionate and talented Hacker

Brian is a talented C++ developer with special passion for gadgets and Free software. He has heard of Plasma Active through a friend, and after hacking a bit on addons, he wants to join the team creating this system. Briann pops up in the #plasma IRC channel on Freenode, explaining his intention and skill level. A friendly developer quickly explains Brian how to get started, pointing him to documentation how to get the development environment set up, API documentation and the team’s current plans, vision and of cource the long list of open tasks. Brian, much like Lwing sets up the environment, plays around with it a bit, changes a few things in the shell in order to get a feeling for the whole thing and starts on some easier bugs. After a few days, Brian is up to speed and starts to send patches to the Plasma team through reviewboard. Fast forward a few months, Brian has shown that he understands the code base, the processes to keep it sane and the team’s vision. He applies for an Git account to be able to take on more responsibilty, helps reviewing patches of other contributors, contributes new ideas and becomes more and more part of the team.

You’ll notice that Brian’s and Lwing’s use cases do not actually differ much technically, but mostly socially and in the sense of community dynamics. This is actually quite convenient, since it reduces maintainance and work overhead: Less development tools to create, maintain, document. Chad’s use case concentrates on lowering the threshold for people to get involved. With the Plasma Quick platform becoming more and more powerful, Chad is able to create a wide range of apps.

Next Iterations of the KDE Workspaces

In this post, I’ll try to provide an overview of the results of the work we’ve done during the Workspace sprint in Pineda de Mar, Catalunya, Spain. The sprint is still going on, unfortunately I had to leave early to attend a friend’s wedding. Before going into any details, a few thank yous and credits are in place: Aleix Pol and Alex Fiestas for being excellent hosts organising this sprint (including picking this terrific location which allowed us to concentrate 100% on our processes and 0% on the beach), KDE Spain for sponsoring our food, the KDE e.V. (and its donators!) for sponsoring travel expenses and providing organisational backing, Kevin Ottens who took a sizable slice of time out of his vacation account in order to facilitate meetings, enabling group dynamical processes and generally being a good moderator, Björn Balasz for chipping in time and providing his background in psychology and usability and of course open-slx, my awesome employer.

Activities central: One focus that we have been working on in Plasma quite extensively is organising your documents, contacts, applications, files and other digital assets into Activities. Activities provide a contextual way of organising your devices. Activities usually enclose these resources into personal context which might include locations, contacts, documents and any other resource we’re able to express in terms of semantics. (So pretty much all. :))
We’ve identified areas where we can improve the activities workflow. Switching between Activities and getting an overview can surely be improved. There have already been some ideas floating around, and some smaller and larger improvements are in the pipeline to see the light of day in one of our future releases. In some parts, we’re transplanting features we have matured in the Plasma Active user experience into the desktop. The Plasma Way: Share code across devices, investigate workflows across apps and device borders. (So a workflow which we want to enable may actually involve using more than one device — we want to make especially these patterns a lot easier, intuitive and fun to use. There’s a few real challenges in there, although many parts involve someone “just sitting down and doing it”.

Personas: I’ve dedicated a separate blog entry to Carla and Raj, our brand new personas, so I’ll kindly refer you to that.

Social networks and messaging: Carla’s and Raj’s lives involve talking to people across different channels. We want to enable these patterns by providing deep integration of messaging and social networks into the desktop. While we likely will not ever support every single feature of all social networks, we definitely want things like native notifications for messages, and being able to keep tabs on the going ons around you. Technologies we’ve been working on in the part years and which are coming to mature now will be a great help in creating a nice user experience here: Akonadi, Telepathy being at the forefront of double-plus-useful frameworks here.

Along with the integration of more social services into the workspace, we also want to enable cross-device workflows using online services. Examples for getting your data across devices are ownCloud, but also commercial services like FlickR. I think we are in the position to put Free software solutions first, but not excluding proprietary services, but enabling Carla and Raj to mix and mesh whatever they uses. In this, we need to pick up the user where he or she is now. We’re not going to switch users to Free software users if we require social disruption in their lives. :)

Something I found particularly exciting was the call by a few participants to reinvigorate Project Silk. The idea is to make the web, web apps, -applications and -services first class citizens in the desktop. This can range from the introduction of a site-specific browser to deeper integration of online content and services: think of FlickR integration in Gwenview, caching data from online sources, providing native UIs for services that are otherwise a bit cumbersome to use, and much, much more. I’m surely hoping we’ll see a surge of improvements in this area. I’m also happy that Richard and I documented our ideas quite well when we came up with them in 2009 at the Desktop Summit in Gran Canaria (coincidentally also Spain, at least technically ;-)).

There’s almost too much exciting new ideas that it’s hard to report about all of it without choking your feedreaders or webbrowsers, so I’ll just mention a few more telegramme-style. Feel free to ask in the comments if you have specific questions, or just head over to the plasma-devel@kde.org mailinglist where you can discuss with the whole team involved.

  • As base for identifying needed improvements, we will concentrate our thinking on which workflows we can enable for users. This first line of identification will be thought about without a specific device in mind. Much more so, workflow can and often do include different devices. We want this to be at the heart of our designs.
  • Virtual desktop will remain what they are, orthogonal to the principle of Activities, We do not plan any sweeping changes here, in order not to break engrained workflows. Nepomuk synchronisation across devices is still a very challenging problem. It needs more design and research work to define an achievable scope.
  • We’ve proposed a few changes to KDE’s release rythms, basically decoupling the releases of workspaces, applications and (in the future) KDE Frameworks. This is basically a continuation of KDE’s effort to implement branding closer aligned to how we work and what we produce; currently under discussion.
  • Notifications will likely receive a rework in order to make them more activity aware, and to display insensitive information on a lock screen, just to name two examples.
  • Everybody agreed that stability and quality are key for users. We will avoid disruptive changes, but concentrate on making existing tools better, and new features not get in the way of existing workflows. A few changes in our processes have also been planned,
  • Clemens of Blue Systems attends the sprint as well, it’s good to see new faces participating and supporting KDE. We’ve had very interesting conversations about all kinds of topics.
  • Maybe the most important thing was the sharing of the Plasma vision with a wider team of contributors. It strikes that Plasma lately has been moving so incredibly fast that we built up a backlog of communication, some of which we managed to knock down in the past days, but it surely will take some time until all ideas, concepts and processes are ingrained into everybody’s brains. The first steps for this have been taken, however.

As you can see, that’s a lot of stuff we have carved in sand in the past days. It will need refinement, and consolidation, more design, ungodly amounts of hacking and surely won’t all be implemented in a whim. It does however give everyone a good idea where we’re going, and what the steps into that direction are. Exciting times ahead. If you’re looking for more sprint results, I’d also read Marco’s blog about it.

Saying good bye was relatively easy this time around, as most people attending the sprint will also be at Akademy, which starts in two weeks in Talinn, Estland. The next Plasma sprint is planned in September in Switzerland. The plan is to mostly work on libplasma2, QtQuick2 and Frameworks 5 in order to technically pave the way into the future of the Linux workspaces.

Plasma Personas: Carla and Raj

Let me introduce two new virtual members of the KDE community: Carla and Raj.

Carla and Raj have seen the light of day at the Plasma sprint in Pineda de Mar in the past days. They are two personas we’re basing our UI work on in order to create software that matches expectations of our users better. Carla and Raj have specifically been designed to represent groups outside of our usual comfort zone. You might also notice that the two are as different as it could possibly get — very much on purpose.

Carla is the administrative assistant of a CEO at a large-ish corporation. She’s a 32 year old university graduate living in London with a monthly income of 5000€. Carla is single, bordering workoholic. During the week, she usually doesn’t have much time for hobbies, in the weekends she enjoys meeting her friends for drinks and fine dining. Carla like convenience of technology but is mostly interested in how it improves her life, not for the sake of technology. She’s smart and interested, but not a techie. Carla’s primary electronic devices are her smartphone, her tablet and her laptop. She uses all of these devices for both work and leisure, the laptop at work docked into a docking station). Her work involves efficient communication, and she always needs to be on top of things. In her freetime, you’ll often find her relaxing listening to music or watching movies and tv shows.

Raj is a 21 year old engineering student living in the West of India, separate from his family. As many Indian students, he shares a dorm with fellow students. Raj has roughly 300€ to spend every month, this covers his costs but doesn’t leave a lot of room for luxurious expenditures. Raj is not too ambitious, in his free time, he regularly gets wasted in one or the other way. Once or twice a year, he visits his family in New Delhi. Although Raj is studying a technology subject, his interest in computers and software is limited. Raj owns a (slightly dated) laptop and a low-end smartphone. Like most of his friends, he hangs out a lot of social networks.

Raj and Carla form the basis of our work. In our design process, which is based on user-centered design techniques, we want to make sure we create software for the right target groups. Having these personas means that we can ask ourselves specific questions when we plan user visible changes. I hope we will see these two fellows deeply integrated in our creation process.