Touchscreen tablets are all the rage these days, though Linux support for
them has arguably been late in coming. While Android has made a (closed)
release for tablets, free software alternatives have lagged, though both GNOME and KDE are working on the
problem. In fact, KDE recently announced its
entrant, Plasma Active One, which is the first of three currently planned
releases of its touch-based user experience. Giving the new interface
a test drive would seem mandatory.
While Plasma Active One can be run in a virtual machine, that is not
the recommended configuration. Instead, the installation
wiki page suggests several recent tablet devices, like the WeTab or
ExoPC, as test systems. I happened to have another of the suggested
devices, a Lenovo Ideapad, due to the generosity of Intel at the Dublin
MeeGo conference, so I gave Plasma Active a try on that.
The project provides two different live-USB images for testing Plasma
Active One, one
based on openSUSE 11.4 and the other based on MeeGo 1.2. Both boot directly
into the interface, which, after sliding the unlock icon, lands you on a "Introduction" activity that includes
a bit of documentation on how to use the interface along with a video that
demonstrates many of its features (which can also be seen on the project
home page). Both live images worked well, though
slowly, which may be expected when running from USB. To try to see Plasma Active One
running at full speed, I installed openSUSE 11.4 (as the MeeGo live image
seemed unhappy with the Broadcom WiFi on the Ideapad) and followed the
wiki instructions to install it. While the speed definitely
improved, it was still kind of pokey (in particular, applications loaded
very slowly), which may be a reflection of the
hardware rather than Plasma Active One itself.
"Activities" are the central organizing
principle of Plasma Active, and the demo systems come with an example
activity ("Vacation Planning") as well as a blank "My First Activity" to be
filled in by new users.
The idea behind activities is to group selected applications, bookmarks,
images, and other objects into a collection that can be switched to easily
as the user changes the tasks they are working on. Activities are accessed from the activity "wheel"
(or "switcher", seen at right) that gets "pulled" to the left from a tab on the right-hand side of any
activity screen. The wheel allows the users to "spin" through their
activities to one of
interest using a swipe gesture. It's a little hard to describe the action
of the wheel, but the video shows it clearly early on. Users can touch any visible activity to
switch to it, and activities can be
deleted from the wheel as well.
The wheel view gives both the name and background image of the activity,
which makes it fairly easy to quickly pick the one you are looking for.
Switching to an activity brings up its "home screen" (an example activity
is shown at left), which consists of
various elements that have been connected to that activity. So there may
be an "Application" window containing the programs that the user deemed
important to that activity, a "Bookmark" window with relevant browser
bookmarks, and so on. Various widgets can also be attached to an activity
for things like notes, clocks, weather, etc.
The elements (windows, widgets) on the activity home screen can be moved
around, scrolled, and
resized in the obvious ways (obvious to other touch interface users
anyway). There are some constraints on the sizes and
positions of the elements so that they do not overlap, but the
size/position is also limited
to a fairly coarse grid. That makes sense for touch-oriented
interfaces, but may seem a little too rigid to some. The activity screen
itself is not limited in the vertical direction, though, and can be
scrolled to access further real estate as needed.
Applications can be run either from an activity's list or from the launch
area. Pulling down the "Peek and Launch" bar (which lives at the top of
the screen and contains status icons for battery,
network, and others, along with some control elements) will
expose a live view of the currently running applications that can be
switched to with a touch. Pulling the bar down further exposes the
launch area (seen at right), which displays various applications that can
be started. As might be guessed, additional running applications or
launchable applications can be accessed by swiping the appropriate area to
the right or left.
Applications generally run in full-screen mode, which makes sense for a tablet
interface even if it still feels strange to curmudgeons like me who are
seeing more than one application at once. There are various ways to
navigate away from a running application. The first is the
running-application-panel mentioned above, which can also be used to quit
any running application by touching its close icon. Another method is to
activities icon in the far upper right corner, which returns you to the
current activity's home screen (and leaves the application running in the
background). It is a little difficult to get used to, but is fairly
straightforward to use once you do.
There are three other icons in the upper right, corresponding to another
central idea in Plasma Active: share, like, and connect (SLC). The idea is
that compliant applications will be able to offer ways to share (via social
media, email, etc.), like (ratings, favorites, ..), or connect (to an
activity or calendar event for example) their content. So a user could
connect a web site to one of their activities, share a photo with one of
their friends (or many of them via a web service), rate a particular
document for use in desktop searches, etc. Currently, though, few
applications have added SLC functionality.
Many applications work quite well under Plasma Active One, including
Firefox, LibreOffice Math,
Marble, and others. While those applications are not targeted at
touchscreen interfaces, it is still fairly easy to use them (though typing
can be painful, see below). The
applications on the other hand have been written with touchscreens
in mind. Things like the calendar and contacts applications were very easy
to use and seemed to have all of the functionality that one is used to
from, say, the equivalent Android apps.
A touchscreen keyboard is available for text entry, though it suffers from
many of the same annoyances that other implementations do. It sometimes
pops up in places that cover the text entry field—as it did for
searching applications in the screen shot at left—though it can be shifted
to the top or bottom of the screen using the arrow icon. It is not really
suitable for anything other than entering short text. That's a limitation
of the tablet form factor, but the Ideapad does have a hardware keyboard
which makes things a bit easier. The on-screen keyboard does show each key
value as it is pressed, but the reaction time seemed slow. It also doesn't
always pop up or disappear at the right times. For someone
whose normal interface to a computer is largely through the keyboard, it was
irritating, but that may be partially due to the curmudgeon effect.
There were a number of other glitches that I observed with the three
different versions (the two live-USB versions and the installed openSUSE
Plasma Active One that I tried. Some may be attributable to the hardware (CPU, graphics,
touchscreen) of the Ideapad, but likely others are bugs of one sort or
another. The image viewer was flaky (at least in the openSUSE
versions, the MeeGo version worked fine), the updates of the running application
view would sometimes get out of sync when closing applications, sometimes
multiple tries were needed to activate an icon or button, the calendar has
an irritating habit of popping up when trying to swipe the Peek and Launch
bar (the time, which brings up the calendar, is dead center in the bar), and so on. Those kinds of problems
are to be expected in a first release, and many are undoubtedly fixed in
more recent development versions. Plasma Active is by no means
complete—or completely working—but it is an impressive start.
What's most interesting about Plasma Active is that it has taken its own path.
Rather than adopt one of the existing touchscreen interfaces, or picking
and choosing the "best" parts of Android/iOS/webOS/etc., KDE has come up
with its own paradigms for Plasma Active. As more folks start to use it, the
interface may change down the road—something that's already been seen
between some early demos at the Desktop Summit in Berlin and the current
version. Free software is often accused of being imitative, and not
innovative, but KDE and the Plasma Active team cannot be pinned with that
label here. Whether one likes Plasma Active or not, it is certainly a bold
step in an interesting direction.
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