Plasma Active - a New Approach to Tablet Computing
Why would you spend a few hundred dollars on a device that is little more than a smartphone (with a bigger screen, without the phone)?
Despite the success of Apple's iPad, that is a question that seems to have defeated most hardware and software vendors. MeeGo struggled to define a tablet user interface, never quite managing more than a pre-release. It presented a few simple options, such as watching videos, playing music or browsing the Web—really no more than a modern phone with a larger screen. Even the iPad, an acknowledged success, is little more than an oversize iPhone. Its "wall of apps" approach has been largely copied by the Android-based tablets so far appearing on the market.
What Are Tablets For?
The tablet sitting in your hand (or unused in one of your drawers) is a real computer. Can it do more than browse the Web and play videos? Marco Martin, well-known KDE hacker and basysKom employee, thinks so: "the fact that people download and use thousands of apps shows that there is the desire to do something more". He dislikes the way "most mobile applications feel quite disconnected with each other". Marco believes this is where KDE's new user interface and application set for touchscreen devices, Plasma Active, can shine.
Figure 1. Plasma Active comes with a selection of applications, some more ready for touchscreens than others.
Plasma Active takes a new approach to touchscreen devices and tries to offer more than a set of applications for simple tasks. More than a desktop or even a notebook computer, a touchscreen device is likely to be carried around and used in different contexts, for different purposes. Plasma Active makes use of KDE's Activities, something that has confused desktop users (see the Activities—a Solution Looking for a Problem? sidebar) but, the developers believe, makes sense on tablet devices.
Aaron Seigo, a founding member of the Plasma Active Project and one of the main drivers behind KDE's Plasma family of user interfaces, hails Activities as a great step forward, claiming that "many find the ability to sort their information and applications between different activities greatly increases the value of the device in their lives". He uses a personal example: "while on a recent vacation I relied on Activities to keep track of our itineraries and plans, some work tasks and to keep up with things back home. I have a few Android tablets, and none of them would have been nearly as useful."
Activities—a Solution Looking for a Problem?
Since 2008, KDE has been pushing the concept of Activities, with mixed results. Many users have not been sure of the difference between Activities, designed to allow division of different types of tasks, and virtual desktops, which many people use to divide different types of tasks.
The idea is that although virtual desktops provide extra space and some grouping—for example, you might have different desktops for e-mail, Web, numerical work and graphics work—Activities provide customized interfaces for different tasks at different times.
Imagine you are a student at university. You might use virtual desktops as described above—with e-mail on one and lecture notes on another. But you might use Activities to differentiate between your courses, having one Activity for each set of lectures. So you can have a calculator widget on your desktops for your math lectures Activity, the periodic table for your chemistry lab Activity and quick access to your games in your free-time Activity. With its quick switcher and per-Activity recommendations, Plasma Active takes this concept further, making your tablet change its configuration completely at the scroll of the Activities wheel, so you can have it set up just how you want for every task you experience.
Figure 2. You can customize each Activity with widgets and switch between them easily using the Activities wheel.
When you launch Plasma Active for the first time (see the Try Plasma Active Two sidebar for how to try it), you are presented with what appears to be a fairly standard KDE desktop. The main things out of place are a panel at the top of the screen and the lack of an obvious application menu. Two small tabs halfway up either side of the screen also are not found in other KDE workspaces. Between them, these three items provide your control of Plasma Active. Drag the top panel down a little, and you will see a wide, touch-friendly task bar, with live previews of the running applications and the Home Screen that effectively minimizes all running programs. Drag a bit farther down, and you are presented with a wall of application icons, not unlike those provided on Android or Apple tablets, with a search box you can use to locate the correct application quickly. So far, not so very revolutionary.
Try Plasma Active Two
The latest release of Plasma Active is easy to try out. If you already have a computer running MeeGo or OpenSUSE, you can install the needed packages. However, a safer and more convenient option is to try one of the ready-made live images—you always can install them if you decide you like Plasma Active. Live images on a MeeGo base are provided by basysKom, while open-slx provides an image built on its OpenSUSE-based Balsam Professional distribution.
You even can try Plasma Active on ARM devices (such as an Android tablet) using an image built on Mer, the port of a MeeGo-like system to the ARM architecture.
Details of all the installation and testing options can be found on the KDE Wiki (http://community.KDE.org/Plasma/Active/Installation).
The performance of the live images depends on your USB stick and your tablet device. You can install the software to get better performance, but that may, of course, overwrite your existing operating system.
As Plasma Active—and tablet devices—become more widespread, it is likely that many distributions will begin to offer Plasma Active as a user interface or provide special mobile-optimized distributions with Plasma Active.
As Aaron Seigo of KDE notes, "a solution only really matters if people can use it". You also may one day see Plasma Active devices for sale—the Plasma Active team is "working quite hard on making this a reality in the near future".
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