At the beginning of this year, the Plasma team was itching to extend Plasma's coverage of the device spectrum. We already had Desktop and Netbook interfaces, and while maintaining and incrementally improving those, we wanted to show case the possibilities of Plasma by creating a full fledged touch interface for devices.
After being shown the concept of Activities, Eva, founder of Basyskom (who is now a major supporter and investor in our efforts), had an epiphany as how they could be applied to a touch based device like a tablet. She christened the concept "Contour". OpenSLX was looking for a new halmark feature to help expand its appeal and so we found a home for packaging efforts and OS.
We also wanted to start working with the newest QtQuick technologies without disturbing the Desktop or Netbook interfaces with our experimentation. It all came together at the right time and Plasma Active was born.
Our goal was to create an innovative object of desire, one which people will want and, once they have it, build a personal connection with over time and through usage. We also knew it has to be 100% open, from planning through to development, and we gave ourselves just six months to come up with the first version of it.
After months of effort, Plasma Active has gone "beta". We're currently a little more than a month away from the first release, and so starting this month we are focusing on polish, integration and fixing defects. So how does it look? Judge for yourself from this quickly-made five-minute video of Plasma Active on an ExoPC device running packages that are just a few days behind our upstream development:
Even though we haven't even reached our first release, it's already quite usable. Many people have been installing and enjoying Plasma Active since, as one can see in any number of blog postingss recently, such as John Layt's and Sune Vuorela's from today. I've also been seeing more and more tweets and dents about it, and the IRC channel (#active on irc.freenode.net) is getting fuller by the day.
We've been able to make these strides because we did not start from scratch. We started with the Plasma framework that builds upon Qt's and KDE's libraries. The component-based approach has allowed us to re-use components and rework what was needed, allowing us to expend a minimal amount of effort to achieve an interface that is radically different from what we deliver on the Desktop and Netbook. They are completely compatible, however: what I run on my Plasma Desktop, I can run on the tablet. Activities also are compatible and can be used across the different Plasma shells. I was doing this just the other day during development while running Plasma Active in a window and switching between activities: it showed the activities I'd created using Plasma Desktop and when it switched the activity, so did Plasma Desktop!
Plasma embraces diversity, and this is how we have been able to create something that looks so different from the Desktop and Netbook interfaces without having to go through a painful and expensive "write everything from scratch". What we have written has also at times benefited Desktop and Netbook comonents, and many of the components in Plasma's tablet UI are actually straight from those more traditional interfaces. What we did write custom has mostly been done using the highly time efficient QtQuick framework.
Above all else, this shows how Plasma interfaces can be reshaped into nearly any sort of form one would want without suffering rewrites or incompatibilities. What we have now is a Deskotp, a Netbook and a Tablet interface which are all 100% compatible with each other and share the overwhelming majority of their code with each other.
Development continues at a fast pace as we head towards Plasma Active One in September. Today, unified browser history and plugin support(yes, that means flash) was added to the WebKit based browser and numerous bugfixes made their way in as well. Those following development are greeted with a slightly better experience every day when they update.
How can you get on board? You can run it on a normal laptop PC, of course, but you don't get the full experience. So we recommend snagging yourself an ExoPC device (WeTabs can be found rather innexpensively online in Europe, for instance) and following the instructions on the wiki here. The Balsam live image was just updated yesterday and new packages come streaming in through OBS for openSUSE installations quite literally every day. We also have MeeGo packages which are not quite as advanced as the Balsam / openSUSE ones, though we're working on that, too.
You can also contribute with testing, documentation and code. There are many tasks still open, many applications that could use some love and we're also looking for things like a high-quality introduction video that you can play on first-start that shows you the basics of the interface.
Beyond the shell itself, many of the KDE applications such as Calligra, Kontact and Marble are being "Activated" with touch-friendly UIs and you can use all the apps that are in the normal repositories as well. We're hoping to see even more applications get improved interfaces for touch and, in fact, I believe this to be one of the biggest opportunities for contributors to get involved. The KDE games, for instance, are 99% of the way there: they work beautiful with touch ... if only they'd lose the menubars (and in some cases the toolbars too). Okular makes a rather good eReader already, but it too needs adjustments to the chrom. These little bits of work would help catipult these apps from desktop-only to be desktop, netbook and tablet champions.
I'm excited for October and our first release. We've been showing the tablet at various conferences (and BBQs, pubs, cafes, offices and other such places ;) and the response is universally positive and, more importantly, curious and inquisitive: people want it when they see it. One of the responses we get at conferences all too often is, "Where can I get one of those?" Well ... we're working on that, too. :)