At Blue Systems, we have been working on making Plasma shine for a while now. We’ve contributed much to the KDE Frameworks 5 and Plasma 5 projects, and helping with the transition to Qt5. Much of this work has been involving porting, stabilizing and improving existing code. With the new architecture in place, we’ve also worked on new topics, such as Plasma on non-desktop (and non-laptop) devices.
This work is coming to fruition now, and we feel that it has reached a point where we want to present it to a more general public. Today we unveil the Plasma Mobile project. Its aim is to offer a Free (as in Freedom), user-friendly, privacy-enabling and customizable platform for mobile devices. Plasma Mobile runs on top of Linux, uses Wayland for rendering graphics and offers a device-specific user interface using the KDE Frameworks and Plasma library and tooling. Plasma Mobile is under development, and not usable by end users now. Missing functionality and stability problems are normal in this phase of development and will be ironed out. Plasma Mobile provides basic functionality and an opportunity for developers to jump in now and shape the mobile platform, and how we use our mobile devices.
As is necessary with development on mobile devices, we’ve not stopped at providing source code that “can be made to work”, rather we’re doing a reference implementation of Plasma Mobile that can be used by those who would like to build a product based on Plasma Mobile on their platform. The reference implementation is based on Kubuntu, which we chose because there is a lot of expertise in our team with Kubuntu, and at Blue Systems we already have continuous builds and package creation in place. Much of the last year was spent getting the hardware to work, and getting our code to boot on a phone. With pride, we’re now announcing the general availability of this project for public contribution. In order to make clear that this is not an in-house project, we have moved the project assets to KDE infrastructure and put under Free software licenses (GPL and LGPL according to KDE’s licensing policies). Plasma Mobile’s reference implementation runs on an LG Nexus 5 smartphone, using an Android kernel, Ubuntu user space and provides an integrated Plasma user interface on top of all that. We also have an x86 version, running on an ExoPC, which can be useful for testing.
Plasma Mobile uses the Wayland display protocol to render the user interface. KWin, Plasma’s window manager and compositor plays a central role. For apps that do not support Wayland, we provide X11 support through the XWayland compatibility layer.
Plasma Mobile is a truly converged user interface. More than 90% of its code is shared with the traditional desktop user interface. The mobile workspace is implemented in the form of a shell or workspace suitable for mobile phones. The shell provides an app launcher, a quick settings panel and a task switcher. Other functionality, such as a dialer, settings, etc. is implemented using specialized components that can be mixed and matched to create a specific user experience or to provide additional functionality — some of them already known from Plasma Desktop.
Plasma Mobile is developed in a public and open development process. Contributions are welcome and encouraged throughout the process. We do not want to create another walled garden, but an inclusive platform for creation of mobile device user experiences. We do not want to create releases behind closed doors and throw them over the wall once in a while, but create a leveled playing field for contributors to work together and share their work. Plasma Mobile’s code is available on git.kde.org, and its development is discussed on the plasma-devel mailinglist. In the course of Akademy, we have a number of sessions planned to flesh out more and more detailed plans for further development.
With the basic workspace and OS integration work done, we have laid a good base for further development, and for others to get their code to run on Plasma Mobile. More work which is already in our pipeline includes support for running Android applications, which potentially brings a great number of mature apps to Plasma Mobile, better integration with other Plasma Devices, such as your desktop or laptop through KDE Connect, an improved SDK making it very easy to get a full-fledged development environment set up in minutes, and of course more applications.
“Since when has the world of computer software design been about what people want? This is a simple question of evolution. The day is quickly coming when every knee will bow down to a silicon fist, and you will all beg your binary gods for mercy.” Bill Gates
For the sake of the users, let’s assume Bill was either wrong or (||) sarcastic.
Let’s say that we want to deliver Freedom and privacy to the users and that we want to be more effective at that. We plan to do that through quality software products and communication — that’s how we reach new users and keep them loving our software.
We can’t get away with half-assed software that more or less always shows clear signs of “in progress”, we need to think our software through from a users point of view and then build the software accordingly. We need to present our work at eye-level with commercial software vendors, it needs to be clear that we’re producing software fully reliable on a professional level. Our planning, implementation, quality and deployment processes need to be geared towards this same goal.
We need processes that allow us to deliver fixes to users within days, if not hours. Currently in most end-user scenario, it often takes months and perhaps even a dist-upgrade for a fix for a functional problem with our software.
The fun of all this lies in a more rewarding experience of making successful software, and learning to work together across the whole stack (including communication) to work together on this goal.
So, with these objectives in mind, where do we go from here? The answer is of course that we’re already underway, not at a very fast speed, but many of us have good understanding of many of the above structural goals and found solutions that work well.
Take tighter and more complete quality control, being at the heart of the implementation, as an example. We have adopted better review processes, more unit testing, more real-world testing and better feedback cycles with the community, especially the KDE Frameworks and Plasma stacks are well maintained and stabilized at high speeds. We can clearly say that the Frameworks idea worked very well technically but also from an organizational point of view, we have spread the maintainership over many more shoulders, and have been able to vastly simplify the deployment model (away from x.y.z releases). This works out because we test especially the Frameworks automatically and rather thoroughly through our CI systems. Within one year of Frameworks 5, our core software layer has settled into a nice pace of stable incremental development.
On the user interaction side, the past years have accompanied our interaction designers with visual artists. This is clearly visible when comparing Plasma 4 to Plasma 5. We have help from a very active group of visual designers now for about one and a half year, but have also adopted stricter visual guidelines in our development process and forward-thinking UI and user interaction design. These improvements in our processes have not just popped up, they are the result of a cultural shift towards opening the KDE also to non-coding contributors, and creating an atmosphere where designers feel welcome and where they can work productively in tandem with developers on a common goal. Again, this shows in many big and small usability, workflow and consistency improvements all over our software.
To strengthen the above processes and plug the missing holes in the big picture to make great products, we have to ask ourselves the right questions and then come up with solutions. Many of them will not be rocket science, some may take a lot of effort by many. This should not hold us back, as a commonly shared direction and goal is needed anyway, regardless of ability to move. We need to be more flexible, and we need to be able to move swiftly on different fronts. Long-standing communities such as KDE can sometimes feel to have the momentum of an ocean liner, which may be comfortable but takes ages to move, while it really should have the velocity, speed and navigational capabilities of a zodiak.
By design, Free Culture communities such as ours can operate more efficiently (through sharing and common ownership) than commercial players (who are restricted, but also boosted by market demands), so in principle, we should be able to offer competitive solutions promoting Freedom and privacy.
Our users need merciful binary source code gods and deserve top-notch silicon fists.
It’s that time of the year again, it seems: I’m working on KPluginMetaData improvements.
In this article, I am describing a new feature that allows developers to filter applications and plugins depending on the target device they are used on. The article targets developers and device integrators and is of a very technical nature.
Different apps per device
This time around, I’m adding a mechanism that allows us to list plugins, applications (and the general “service”) specific for a given form factor. In normal-people-language, that means that I want to make it possible to specify whether an application or plugin should be shown in the user interface of a given device. Let’s look at an example: KMail. KMail has two user interfaces, the desktop version, a traditional fat client offering all the features that an email client could possibly have, and a touch-friendly version that works well on devices such as smart phones and tablets. If both are installed, which should be shown in the user interface, for example the launcher? The answer is, unfortunately: we can’t really tell as there currently is no scheme to derive this information from in a reliable way. With the current functionality that is offered by KDE Frameworks and Plasma, we’d simply list both applications, they’re both installed and there is no metadata that could possibly tell us the difference.
Now the same problem applies to not only applications, but also, for example to settings modules. A settings module (in Frameworks terms “KCM”) can be useful on the desktop, but ignored for a media center. There may also be modules which provide similar functionality, but for a different use case. We don’t want to create a mess of overlapping modules, however, so again, we need some kind of filtering.
Metadata to the rescue
Enter KPluginMetaData. KPluginMetaData gives information about an application, a plugin or something like this. It lists name, icon, author, license and a whole bunch of other things, and it lies at the base of things such as the Kickoff application launcher, KWin’s desktop effects listing, and basically everything that’s extensible or uses plugins.
I have just merged a change to KPluginMetaData that allows all these things to specify what form factor it’s relevant and useful for. This means that you can install for example KDevelop on a system that can be either a laptop or a mediacenter, and an application listing can be adapted to only show KDevelop when in desktop mode, and skipping it in media center mode. This is of great value when you want to unclutter the UI by filtering out irrelevant “stuff”. As this mechanism is implemented at the base level, KPluginMetaData, it’s available everywhere, using the exact same mechanism. When listing or loading “something”, you simply check if your current formfactor is among the suggested useful ones for an app or plugin, and based on that you make a decision whether to list it or skip it.
With increasing convergence between user interfaces, this mechanism allows us to adapt the user interface and its functionality in a fully dynamic way, and reduces clutter.
Getting down and dirty
So, how does this look exactly? Let’s take KMail as example, and assume for the sake of this example that we have two executables, kmail and kmail-touch. Two desktop files are installed, which I’ll list here in short form.
For the desktop fat client:
Comment=Fat-client for your email
Note that that “FormFactors” key does not just take one fixed value, but allows specifying a list of values — an application may support more than one form-factor. This is reflected throughout the API with the plural form being used. Now the only thing the application launcher has to do is to check if the current form-factor is among the supplied ones, for example like this:
In this example, we check if the plugin metadata does specify the form-factor by counting the elements, and if it does, we check whether “desktop” is among them. For the above mentioned example files, it would mean that the fat client will be added to the list, and the touch-friendly one won’t. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader how one could filter only applications that are specifically suitable for example for a tablet device.
What devices are supported?
KPluginMetaData does not itself check if any of the values make sense. This is done by design because we want to allow for a wide range of form-factors, and we simply don’t know yet which devices this mechanism will be used on in the future. As such, the values are free-form and part of the contract between the “reader” (for example a launcher or a plugin listing) and the plugins themselves. There are a few commonly used values already (desktop, mediacenter, tablet, handset), but in principle, adding new form-factors (such as smartwatches, toasters, spaceships or frobulators) is possible, and part of its design.
For application developers
Application developers are encouraged to add this metadata to their .desktop files. Simply adding a line like the FormFactors one in the above examples will help to offer the application on different devices. If your application is desktop-only, this is not really urgent, as in the case of the desktop launchers (Kickoff, Kicker, KRunner and friends), we’ll likely use a mechanism like the above: No formfactors specified means: list it. For devices where most of the applications to be found will likely not work, marking your app with a specific FormFactor will increase the chances of it being found. As applications are being adopted to respect the form-factor’s metadata, its usefulness will increase. So if you know your app will work well with a remote control, add “mediacenter”, if you know it works well on touch devices with a reasonably sized display, add “tablet”, and so on.
We now have basic API, but nobody uses it (a chicken-and-egg situation, really). I expect that one of the first users of this will be Plasma Mediacenter. Bhushan is currently working on the integration of Plasma widgets into its user interface, and he has already expressed interest in using this exact mechanism. As KDE software moves onto a wider range of devices, this functionality will be one of the cornerstones of the device-adaptable user interface. If we want to use device UIs to their full potential, we do not just need converging code, we also need to add divergence features to allow benefiting from the difference of devices.
I recently went on a vacation to Cuba. As I wanted to go scuba diving there, I researched a bit beforehand. The information I could dig up was spotty at times, so I decided to share my notes in order to add it as anecdotal information when planning their diving trips.
During the 3 week trip to Cuba, I visited three locations in the south-western part of the island. In total, I did 19 dives along the Cuba coast, all of them very enjoyable. On the list were shallow (10-18m) coral reef dives, wall dives, some of them deep. I clocked my max depth at 34.1m. One of the things I wanted to do was a cave dive in a Cenote. Cenotes are underwater cave systems found around the geological area.
Cuba, being a Carribean island has a tropical climate with warm waters around it, and climatically a wet and a dry season. As the wet season may make the sea choppy, reduce visibility and carries the risk of hurricanes, it’s advisable to pick the dry seasons, months from November to May for diving activities. The South coast, which is where I have been diving had warm waters 27°C at the surface, and 26°C as depths down to about 35m. Visibility was generally excellent, commonly around 30m, with sometimes up to 50-60m in calm water. In several spots, there are large and well-preserved coral reefs. The South coast usually has calmer waters than the North coast, so I picked locations in the South-West: Maria La Gorda at the far southwestern point of the island, Playa Girón at the Bay of Pigs, and Playa Ancón near Trinidad. All turned out to be worth visiting and made for some amazing dives. (We also visited Cayo Levisa on Cuba’s Northern shore, which has a nice beach, but was mediocre at best for snorkeling from the shore. Go to Cayo Jutia instead, if you want good snorkeling, or book the boat to go diving at Cayo Levisa.)
Cuba is a communist country, instead of Coca Cola advertisements you’ll find some billboard reminding you that “the revolution is invincible”. Economic trade embargoes make acquiring scuba diving gear a problem (although I haven’t seen any shortcomings in this area myself). There’s usually just one dive center running the diving operations, so not much choice, but on the other hand, you’ll rarely encounter crowded dive sites, or reduced visibility due to other divers silting up the waters.
Touristic activities such as diving are usually possible through government-owned dive centers. There’s a network of official travel agents across the country, which can help you with booking trips and getting in contact with dive centers. Many of them are not easily reachable by phone, but you can sometimes book in advance of your trip online. In my experience, it would have been fine to just show up at the dive center at the right time of the day with your certification card and dive logs to prove your experience, and you’ll be almost good to go. I decided to bring my own gear, regulator, jacket BCD, 3mm wetsuit, fins, mask and torch in order to avoid any annoyances or unsafe situations due to flaky equipment.
My personal experience has been very positive, I loved the different dive sites, guides were generally skilled, and I had a whole bunch of amazing dives in Cuba. Would recommend.
Maria la Gorda
Maria la Gorda is a bit off the beaten path in Cuba, one of the more remote locations on the main land. We travelled there from Vinales in 3 hours by car. The location itself is comprised of a hotel, two restaurants, and dive centre on a beautiful beach that also makes for some very nice snorkeling, you can basically walk in and enjoy lots of fish, even those not often discovered while scuba diving. Kim spotted barracuda, jacks, parrot fish, a moray and even an octopus just a few meters off the beach.
Diving there is done by boat 3 times a day. Almost all of the diving spots are within a 15min boat ride. The dive boat goes to 3 different sites a day, at 8:30, 11:00 and 15:00. It’s possible to also do a night dive, but has to be arranged with the staff. If you’re doing a day trip from Vinales just for diving, you’ll arrive in time to do two dives before leaving, the dive center does consider day guests. The surface time in between was enough to not dip too deep into nitrogen levels with 3 daily dives, the first two of them deep. Dives are usually limited to 45′ bottom time. If in general, you can’t get enough of scuba diving, that’s a lot of diving there.
The sites I’ve visited were all amazing in their own rights. Beautiful walls littered with coral, dropping down to 2000m right below you, really nice tunnels to dive through, large fan corals, barrel sponges of 3m and more, large groupers, jacks, and the usual variety of coral reef fish (parrot, box fish, angelfish, jacks, butterfly fish, etc.). Fish of more than 50cm in size were no exception, which seems like a sign that at least this part of the Carribean is comparably less overfished than other areas, there and especially in Asian countries.
The procedures on the boat were a bit unclear, I had liked to get better introduction there. Other people were happy to help, so this wasn’t much of a problem. The guides’ briefings were too short for my taste, especially knowing a bit about the navigation planned underwater would help to keep the group together more closely and in the end improves safety. I’ve asked the guide to tell me about the planned route under water, which he did in the following dives. That allowed me to take some responsibility myself (I really like to know under water that everybody who went into the water comes out of it as well). That said, there’s always room for improvement, and it didn’t lead to any dangerous situations. Taking responsibility for your buddies is part of diving, and as long as everybody takes it seriously, no problem.
Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs)
The Bay of Pigs is historically known for an attempt by the CIA to invade Cuba with US-friendly troops and overthrow the then-young communist government. Lack of political support from the US government, underestimation of the Cuban revolutionary troops and insufficient secrecy lead to an utter failure of the invasion attempt. Nowadays, the bay of pigs is a rather calm area, with excellent scuba diving. Basically, the eastern shore of the bay is lined with a coral reef wall very close to the shore. Commonly, one would do a shore entry here, swim out about 100m and then drop into the wall.
I dove with Ronel’s local dive operation. A tweaked bus would pick us up in the morning, go to the dive center (next to the government run hotel in Playa Giron) to gear up, and then drive up North for 10 – 20 minutes to one of the dive spots along the bay, then do two shore dives from there. We’d return around 1 o’clock in the afternoon, so there’s plenty of time for other activities (which, to be fair there aren’t that many apart from the beach and a “not-quite-neutral” museum about the failed invasion attempt).
The Cenote Dive
Cenotes are sinkholes in the shallow limestone ground near the coast. Small pools filled with fresh surface waters lead to extended cave systems flooded with salt water, so one enters a fresh water pool in the woods, then descends through a haloclyne. This haloclyne is the border between fresh and salt water. The caves were usually filled with salt water seeping in from the sea, but as there are almost no currents, rain water that comes in from above stays on top as fresh water. The haloclyne produces a weird disturbed visual effect when one dives through it, but above and underneath it, visibility is clear. These sink holes are often quite deep, the one we entered was 26m deep at entry point, the deepest points of the cave system went down to 60m. We entered into a tunnel, a vertical crack in the limestone about 1m wide, so wide enough to comfortably swim through. During the dive, we made our way about 350m into the cave to a maximum depth of 32m. As the shape of the cave determines the dive profile, I ended up having to add an extra decompression stop before surfacing.
We went through a lower tunnel into a larger cave, which had some beautiful sunlight shining in through cracks above in blue-green colors. Visibility was excellent, and the sunrays produced an almost magical ray of sunlight in the water of the deeper cave. Through the haloclyne above us, the sunlight was broken by the different densities of air, fresh and salt water until they hit the particles drifting in the water or the walls and bottom and of the cave. This dive was guided by a specialized cave diving guide. Briefings were thorough, and after a first reef dive to check everyone’s buoyancy and general diving skills, we did our second dive of the day in the Cenote. I’ve found this video, which gives an impression how such a dive looks like. If you’re an advanced diver, comfortable with overhead environments and experienced enough, I’d definitely recommend doing a Cenote dive, For me, it’s been an unforgettable experience.
Playa Ancón is the beach village close to Trinidad. It’s a peninsula at about 7km from Trinidad. I’ve found it a bit complicated to book the diving there. Tour operator in Trinidad would tell me that everything’s fully booked, but inquiring at the dive center in Playa Ancon, I was told to just show up before 9am and I should be fine. That’s what I did, and it was indeed no problem to go diving there. We’d enter the boat from the beach and would go out a few hundred meters, just too much to swim there comfortably.
Even with a bit of a choppy sea that day, the diving was excellent. Good guides lead me over an interesting seascape with sandbed-“roads” in between coral fields, and much life in between. Highlights of these dives were a wreck, which lay across two large rocks and created a swimthrough this way, a school of tuna (about 40 fish), and a 1.2m large eagle ray. Water was warm and visibility in the range of 15m (considered quite bad for the location, so expect better when you get there). The dive shop was run professionally, but be prepared for a “laid-back scheduling”, which means depending on the day, two boat dives with a surface interval on shore might run into the early afternoon. (I’m mentioning it here, since every other dive center I dove with in Cuba was exceptionally punctual, contrary to what I had read before.)
Spring is just showing its first rays of sun, so we went diving today. We did a shallow dive in the morning in a lake close by, which is known for decent diving. The water was 4°C, so really chilly for a recreational dive, visibility under water about 5-7m, which is quite good for this kind of water. During our dive, we had really nice light as we didn’t go very deep and it’s been a really sunny day.
I’ve used Lycra undergarment and a 2mm neoprene bodywarmer under a 5mm wetsuit, 5mm neoprene gloves, hood and boots. My coldest dive so far was in 18 degrees water (in the same lake, late summer), so water that cold was quite something new. Richard, my buddy has a lot of experience also in these conditions, so I was in excellent hands.
After an initial bit of a shock when we entered the water, and a quick weighting / buoyancy check I gained back my serene diving breathing rhythm and started trusting the suit enough to become comfortable that it would keep me warm enough to take it for a swim. We went under for almost half an hour, but also took first signs of hypothermia seriously, in order to keep it safe and healthy. During the dive, we saw some fun fresh water lobsters, but also a fairly dormant ecosystem. I wanted to test out my new equipment, wireless integrated tank pressure gauge, jacket BCD, fins, regulator and an air tank I’ve borrowed from a neighbor, aside from the different layers of the suit.
I’m really happy with the new gear, everything functions perfectly, and there’s nothing that doesn’t have a clear purpose. I’ve taken a couple of notes for the next dive with this equipment, though those are only small adjustments, such as strapping on the tank a bit lower for a better weight distribution (which translates to a more hydrodynamic body position, meaning less exertion, lower air consumption and a more relaxed dive).
One of the things I’ve been sorely missing when doing UI design and development was a good way to preview icons. The icon picker which is shipped with KDE Frameworks is quite nice, but for development purposes it lacks a couple of handy features that allow previewing and picking icons based on how they’re rendered.
Over the christmas downtime, I found some spare cycles to sit down and hammer out a basic tool which allows me to streamline that workflow. In the course of writing this little tool, I realised that it’s not only useful for a developer (like me), but also for artists and designers who often work on or with icons. I decided to target these two groups (UI developers and designers) and try to streamline this tool as good as possible for their usecases.
Cuttlefish is the result of that work. It’s a small tool to list, pick and preview icons. It tries to follow the way we render icons in Plasma UIs as close as possible, in order to make the previews as realistic as possible. I have just shown this little tool to a bunch of fellow Plasma hackers here at the sprint, and it was very well received. I’ve collected a few suggestions what to improve, and of course, cuttlefish being brand-new, it still has a few rough edges.
You can get the source code using the following command: git clone kde:scratch/sebas/cuttlefish
git clone kde:plasmate
and build it with the cmake.
[Edit] We moved cuttlefish to the Plasmate repository, it’s now part of Plasma’s SDK.
One of the important design cornerstones of Plasma is that we want to reduce the amount of “hidden features” as much as possible. We do not want to have to rely on the user knowing where to right-click in case she wants to find a certain, desktop-related option, say adding widgets, opening the desktop settings dialog, the activity switcher, etc.. For this, Plasma 4.0 introduced the toolbox, a small icon that when clicked opens a small dialog with actions related to the desktop. To many users, this is an important lifeline when they’re looking for a specific option.
In Plasma 4.x, there was a Plasmoid, provided by a third party, that used a pretty gross hack to remove the toolbox (which was depicted as the old Plasma logo, resembling a cashew a bit). We did not support this officially, but if people are deliberately risking to break their desktop, who are we to complain. They get to keep both pieces.
During the migration to QML (which begun during Plasma 4.x times), one of the parts I had been porting to QtQuick was this toolbox. Like so many other components in Plasma, this is actually a small plugin. That means it’s easy to replace the toolbox with something else. This feature has not really been documented as its more or less an internal thing, and we didn’t want to rob users of this important lifeline.
Some users want to reduce clutter on their desktop as much as possible, however. Since the options offered in the toolbox are also accessible elsewhere (if you know to find them). Replacing the toolbox is actually pretty easy. You can put a unicorn dancing on a rainbow around your desktop there, but you can also replace it with just an empty object, which means that you’re effectively hiding the toolbox.
For users who would rather like their toolbox to be gone, I’ve prepared a small package that overrides the installed toolbox with an empty one. Hiding the toolbox is as easy as installing this minimal package, which means the toolbox doesn’t get shown, or even get loaded.
I would not recommend doing this, especially not as default, but at the same time, I don’t want to limit what people do with their Plasma do what we as developers exactly envision, so there you go.
Now restart the Plasma Shell (either by stopping the plasmashell process, or by logging out and in again), and your toolbox should be gone.
If you want it back, run
plasmapkg2 -t package -r org.kde.desktoptoolbox
Then restart Plasma and it’s back again.
Even more than just removing the toolbox, I’d like to invite and encourage everybody to come up with nice, crazy and beautiful ideas how to display and interact with the toolbox. The toolbox being a QtQuick Plasmoid package, it’s easy to change and to share with others.
I decommissioned a fine piece of hardware today. This access point brought the first wireless connectivity to my place. It’s been in service for more than 11 years, and is still fully functional.
In the past years, the device has been running OpenWRT, which is a really nice and very powerful little Linux distribution specifically for this kind of routers. OpenWRT actually sprang from the original firmware for this device, and was extended, updated, improved and made available for a wide range of hardware. OpenWRT lately has made this piece of hardware useful, and I’m really thankful for that. It also a shows how much value releasing firmware under an Open Source license can add to a product. Aside from the long-term support effect of releasing the firmware, updated firmware would add features to the router which were otherwise only available in much more expensive hardware.
The first custom firmware I ran on this device was Sveasoft. In the long run, this ended up not being such a good option, since the company producing the software really stretched the meaning of the GPL — while you were technically allowed to share software with others, doing so would end your support contract with the company — no updates for you. LWN has a good write-up about this story.
Bitter-sweet gadget-melancholy aside, the replacement access point brings a 4 times speed increase to the wifi in my home office: less finger-twiddling, more coding. :)
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.
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. :)
With 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.
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?
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.
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.