After several months of concerted team work, we have put the final wrapping on the next major release of Plasma Active. The last two weeks were spent testing on both ARM- and Intel-based devices to identify and fix show-stopper defects. It was time well spent, resulting in a polished release that shines as a successor to Plasma Active Two.
In keeping with our straight-forward naming scheme, this release is simply known as “Three”.
... or download the video in ogg format.
You can go read the official release announcement and news over on The Dot, but what follows is my tl;dr version of what we've been up to in making Plasma Active Three a reality.
A (Probably Not So) Quick Recap
Before I start writing about what's new in Three, let's recap what Plasma Active is in the first place. Plasma Active is a user experience for mobile and media devices built around the core design concepts of "simple beauty," or elegance, and something we call Activities.
You may have seen the word “Activities” in other user interfaces recently, but the word tends to get used as a rather hollow place-holder to mean “something that lets you do something.” Ye-e-e-ah. By contrast, Plasma has a concrete, useful definition for the term which Plasma Active's UI revolves around: activities are a holistic representation of your interests and topics of focus. What does that actually mean?
It means you communicate to the device (explicitly and implicitly) what you are interested in, experiencing and doing with that device; the device responds by keeping everything related to those various interests together for you. This allows the device to keep up as you move from one interest or topic to another.
A Plasma Active device can be your travel planning system one moment, your school textbook the next, your social media portal the next … all depending on what you are wanting to pay attention to right now. This verb-centric concept focuses on your information and the relationships within.
This design philosophy allows us to do several really cool things:
- Plasma Active can filter the information on your device to match what you are focusing on. This lets you put large amounts of information on the device without it becoming a data swamp that is difficult to move around in.
- The file system almost completely hidden. The focus is on meaning and relationships rather than hierarchical filing systems. (If you do need to root (excuse the pun) around in the file system, we do include a terminal application as well: the handy-dandy konsole.)
- Thirdly, it allows us to expose global concepts such as linking, sharing and tagging in a meaningful and easy-to-use way. I have found most systems that use concepts like tagging to require a large (and consistent) investment to get any real pay-off, while in Plasma Active I hardly even notice I'm doing anything.
Around this core design we've pulled together a growing body of touch-optimized functionality based on KDE applications and frameworks so that a Plasma Active device is useful from the moment you turn it on: finding and reading books, opening up office documents, exploring your files, full groupware and a collection of fun games are just three things that compliment the typical applications of web browser. You don't need to open an app store or package manager: this is all there by default.
Best of all, it is all extremely easily to customize, change and advance. Developed completely in the open, sporting a very "normal" Linux userspace with no lock-down or lock-in and no royalties lurking in the background, Plasma Active is the perfect choice for building device experiences with. While other systems seem to go to great pains to weld the seams shut as tightly as possible, making it hard or even useless for bespoke applications, Plasma Active is built to be flexible, adaptable and accommodating of design requirements, whatever they might be.
What to Love About Plasma Active Three
Ok, tl;dr already, right? Let's get into what's up with this new release. After the release of Plasma Active Two, we decided to focus on a number of key areas, starting with the core set of applications. We began by building a file manager that reflects the Plasma Active design philosophy of “actively elegant”.
|Managing files elegantly with Plasma Active Three's Files app|
Unlike traditional file managers, Files doesn't directly expose the file system. We see that as an implementation detail like “which kernel drivers are loaded.” Yes, it's needed for the device to function, but the person using the device shouldn't have to care. Instead, Files promotes meaning and content. On starting Files, you select what you wish to view such as documents, images, music, videos, etc.. There are even stand-alone launchers for things like “Books” and “Images” which actually just launch Files in a content-optimized presentation. You may not even know you are looking at a file manager ... and if so we've succeeded.
Files lets you browse your information using a timeline, tags (including creating and removing tags with simple touch interaction) as well by activity. Oh, and it has a built-in search that doesn't only hit file names but also metadata and content.
The next thing we wanted was a way for people to add “stuff” to their devices easily. We had three primary objectives for this one: freedom, elegance and generality. The result is Add Ons, a system that can install books, wallpapers, applications, widgets .. actually anything that is packaged in a manner the system understands.
The content is accessed using a simple JSON interface. The server behind this is provided under a Free software license, and all the client and server side code is available from KDE's repositories. So not only are we able to provide a way to get at (e.g.) thousands of books really easily, we've also made it so that anyone who wishes could self-host their own system (or even have us host it for them). We believe this opens a whole new arena of possibilities for the use of devices in education, tourism, manufacturing, project-based office environments and more.
As if that wasn't enough, there's a new eBook reader (based on KDE's rather wonderful Okular), a news reader, an alarms application and numerous improvements to the applications we shipped previously.
Another extremely noticeable improvement is performance. Many applications in Plasma Active One and Two would take a rather long time to launch; you'd tap a launcher and then tap your fingers on the table as the little spinner spun and spun. With Three, things launch much faster. The file manager, for instance, launches in just over a second, as does the ebook reader, image viewer and others. We've hit upon a winning combination for how to get things launching quickly and their interfaces moving more smoothly. You'll see this in more and more of the applications we ship.
Part of our performance gains have come from moving to a new reference operating system base: Mer Core. This is the community continuation of MeeGo and a number of companies are actively working on and with it these days. The community itself has a potent mix of friendliness and competence that makes it a wonderful group to work with. It also has brought us into the modern age of Linux technologies. Faster boot times are nice (up-to-date kernels and systemd help here), but so is the ability to set up VPNs and have proper (read: high resolution) screen DPI. We integrated the Maliit input framework, giving Plasma Active Three a new keyboard that is faster, works with all applications you might install (including non-Qt ones) and gives us a really solid foundation for mobile input. As a bonus, the Maliit people have also proven to be an approachable, professional and enjoyable group of people to work with.
In between all these larger chunks of work, we also spent a good amount of time and effort improving the small things, such as where buttons appear in the sheet-style dialogs we use, how applications are listed and the visuals of certain animations to name a few.
As you can see, this is a big release and we hope you enjoy using it, tinkering with it, making new things with it and joining us in making it even better.
You can find out more about Plasma Active Three on the official website, including how to get it and get involved with the community behind and around it.