Plasma Active - a New Approach to Tablet Computing
Share, Like, Connect
Another new feature in Plasma Active is the presence of Share, Like and Connect buttons in the top panel. These make it easy to share content instantly, such as images, to social networks or on-line storage; "like" things on either social networks or locally (for example, bookmarking a page); and connect things together, such as linking a document or a page to the current Activity so that it always will be readily available in the future. This way, if you want quick access to an image, just click the Connect icon to add it as a widget on the desktop of the present Activity.
Figure 7. You easily can associate a file or Web page with an Activity by using the Connect button.
Open for Business
Plasma Active has been unusual among KDE projects due to the heavy involvement of companies from the start. Among these, basysKom has employed developers to work on Contour, the combination of Activities and Recommendations at the center of the user experience. Marco states that "everyone from the community is welcome to join and contribute, just like any other KDE project—companies are members of the community as well and are helping in many tasks (also the less fun ones in order to give to it the level of quality needed for an actual product)". Companies also are making it easy to try Plasma Active, with live images provided by basysKom and open-slx (see the Try Plasma Active Two sidebar).
Life after MeeGo
In the past, a large part of KDE's focus in the mobile space has been on MeeGo-powered devices, particularly those created by Nokia. However, the decision of Nokia to use Windows as the base for its smartphones and Intel's subsequent dropping of MeeGo in favor of its collaboration with Samsung, Tizen, has changed things. These changes do not, however, unduly concern the KDE developers. Aaron points out that "Plasma Active is not welded to any one OS and is highly portable", and indeed, there are "images with OpenSUSE, MeeGo and Mer kernels and userlands beneath the Plasma Active UI".
ARM devices running Android have proven to be very popular, and Plasma Active also is targeting some of this hardware, with an ARM-ready image already available built on software from the Mer Project. But what about Android itself? It is not presently the most appealing alternative for Marco, who argues that "Android, while released with an open-source license is tightly controlled by Google and doesn't leave much room for a developer community to grow and contribute". He does, however, acknowledge that Android "is a good platform indeed and we don't exclude some integration work with it in the future".
There also are possibilities of Plasma Active or related technologies targeting much more than just tablets. Aaron notes that already "some are running it on handset-style devices", but that "the current user experience has been designed with a tablet in mind". He plans, however, to start working on "interfaces that are designed specifically for other form factors, such as set-top boxes and handsets in the future". A key enabler for this is Plasma's design: "Plasma allows for multiple, and highly diverse, user interfaces without starting from scratch. Plasma Desktop, Netbook and now Active for tablets showcases this very nicely: they are all very different on the surface from each other, but share nearly all the implementation code beneath."
The Future of Plasma Active
Plasma Active is still young software. Plasma Active Two was released shortly before this article was written and is the version discussed here. Plasma Active Three is expected in summer 2012 and "will be focusing on new major feature and application introductions", according to Aaron. From a purely end-user perspective, the limited number of touch-friendly applications means Plasma Active is not ready yet. Nonetheless, it is well worth trying out and could become compelling by the time of its third release later this year. It already feels more polished and complete than any of the MeeGo tablet pre-releases.
There are other reasons to get excited about Plasma Active. For Marco, the motivation for starting work on Plasma Active had "different reasons, both purely technological and social ones". The social ones are perhaps best summed up by Aaron: "right now, there is too much focus on created devices that serve the owner of the application store and focus on consumption of new devices just for the sake of the newness of the device", something he believes has "largely stalled progress".
Aaron sees a different future for Plasma Active and those who choose to contribute to or use the software: "We should be looking at how to support people's lives and in doing so make them better. This needs to be done in a socially responsible manner, which means free and open-source software as well as open processes must drive the development. This is the point and purpose of Plasma Active."
Plasma Active: http://plasma-active.org
Plasma Active Installation: http://community.KDE.org/Plasma/Active/Installation