Alessandro Diaferia presented his work on the upcoming Plasma Media Centre that aims to wrap the basic functions of playing videos, listening to music and viewing photos in a consistent interface that makes use of KDE technologies.
Everything in Plasma Media Centre is a Plasma widget, meaning that any of the components, including players, can be easily swapped for another according to personal preference. Widgets can also be used simultaneously, so it'll be easy to listen to a favourite music album while viewing holiday snaps.
Metadata will be tracked using KDE's semantic desktop layer, Nepomuk, so that it will be possible to share tagging and rating information between traditional KDE desktop applications and the media centre. Web services will also be integrated, enabling direct access to content from the likes of YouTube and Flickr without leaving the interface.
A technology preview should be available this autumn and the 1.0 release is expected with KDE 4.6 early in 2011.
Bringing the web to the desktop
Sebastian Kügler began Akademy's web and cloud computing session by discussing how KDE software can take advantage of web services without throwing away 14 years of work on desktop applications.
He explained some of the current problems with web-based applications: they're dependent on a working network connection and have inconsistent user interfaces, and because they need to work on a wide range of device types they fail to take full advantage of the power and large screens of the majority of home computers.
Sebastian's proposal is to overcome these problems by separating data from its presentation. Data can be stored in the cloud, but should be cached locally for offline use, and presentation can be handled by KDE applications that are aware of the capabilities of the device on which they are running, modifying their appearance and behaviour accordingly.
Within KDE, these concepts are known as Project Silk and unify existing KDE technologies. These include indexing web pages using Nepomuk (KDE's semantic desktop layer) and using Akonadi (KDE's data storage engine) for parsing RSS feeds and making them available offline.
Sebastian also proposes accessing YouTube videos using KDE's Dragon video player and browsing and tagging Flickr images in the Gwenview image viewer. These visions are already starting to become reality, with uploading of photo content to Flickr and many other services built into KDE image applications and downloading of OpenStreetMap data for offline use coming to Marble.
Having KDE applications interact seamlessly with web services is good, but for free software advocates, the closed nature of many of these services is a problem.
Frank Karlitschek, the force behind the OpenDesktop family of social networking and content-sharing websites (including KDE-Apps, KDE-Look and Gnome-Look), has turned his attention to freeing the cloud.
His latest project within KDE, known as OwnCloud, aims to provide a free cloud computing system that anyone can install.
Freeing the cloud
You may wonder why anyone would want to go to the trouble of installing their own server, but the motivations are clear for Karlitschek. Not only does it further the cause of free software, preventing the free desktop from becoming nothing more than an interface to proprietary web services, but it also gives the user complete control over their data and features encryption options.
This is important for individuals to protect their privacy, but is essential for companies handling sensitive data. It's also easy to keep track of changes, because OwnCloud uses the FreeDesktop.org Open Collaboration Services standard for notifications, integrated with KDE's notification system.
Work is already underway with KOffice to develop a web-based OpenDocument Format editor so that it will be possible to edit documents either in the familiar KOffice interface or via a web browser. Collaborative editing capabilities are also planned for the future.
By the time OwnCloud 1.1 is released later in 2010, sharing of data will be enabled and plugins will be available to integrate a web-based picture gallery and music server. Further in the future, file versioning (probably based on Git) will be added.
While mobile applications and web service integration are exciting new areas of KDE development, the contributors haven't lost focus on traditional desktop computing.
KOffice celebrated its 2.2 release in May, the first KDE 4.x version deemed suitable for 'real work'. Inge Wallin presented the future directions of KOffice and previewed upcoming features including support for version 1.2 of the OpenDocument Format.
He also discussed the use of 'shapes' in KOffice that make capabilities from any of the applications available to all others. In this way KPresenter simply embeds text shapes from KWord, graphics from Krita (pixel editing) and Karbon14 (vector drawing). KOffice applications were also demoed running in a Windows environment.
Calling all artists
KOffice's drawing application, Krita, featured in a separate presentation. Lukas Tvrdy gave demonstrations of its brush engine for natural painting. Tvrdy has been working on this extensively, thanks to funds received from a community appeal.
These improvements are particularly important to Krita's focus on becoming the premier free software painting application, leaving tasks such as photo editing to other capable applications such as Gimp or KDE's Digikam.
Polishing KDE software was a central theme of Sunday's keynote address. Given by long-time KDE developer and evangelist Aaron Seigo, this talk focused on the successes of and challenges for KDE. He said KDE had enjoyed a great year and listed a number of its successes. These included retaining a deployment of 50 million school desktops in Brazil and gaining several hundred thousand additional deployments in universities.
Deployment of KDE desktops in Portugal has almost doubled from four to seven hundred thousand laptops. There are a million KDE deployments in Venezuela and KDE software is used on 11,000 computers in German embassies worldwide.
Seigo urged the community to seek consensus rather than always striving for unanimity, in order to agree on courses of action and pursue them more rapidly. Above all, he called for elegance in everything KDE does.
He urged application developers to review their interfaces to make them more intuitive and consistent. Library developers should do the same with their APIs, he added. Jargon should be reduced and warning pop-ups eliminated for all but the most critical errors.
The impact Seigo's message had was visible during the week, as developers tweaked their interfaces, discussed the best way of doing things and constantly called Seigo over to assess their elegance.
One annoyance of the free desktop at present is the use of incompatible systems for storing sensitive user data such as passwords. Every web browser may have its own password store and anyone using both KDE and Gnome applications will likely have to open both KWallet and Gnome Keyring in every desktop session.
Michael Leupold presented a collaboration between KDE and Gnome to develop a unified standard for storing secrets. The aim is that KDE and Gnome applications will both be able to share a common secrets architecture but still have separate graphical interfaces.
A KDE user will be presented with a KDE interface if they need to unlock an account in Empathy (the Gnome instant messaging application) while a Gnome user will see a Gnome interface for password management even if they prefer to chat using KDE's Kopete. It is also hoped that the standard will attract the support of other vendors, such as Mozilla.
KDE as a community
Although KDE is male-dominated, with around 95% of contributors possessing a Y-chromosome, most teams have important female contributors.
The women of KDE discussed how they had the feeling of being impostors – that they do not know enough to contribute effectively and that their lack of knowledge might be found out – even though they're generally as well-qualified their male counterparts. But they agreed that KDE was a good home for women in free software with a welcoming community where the gender of a contributor is unimportant as long as what they bring to the table is of value.
Akademy closed on Friday after seven days of presentations, discussions, work and fun. Many new friendships had been made and old ones strengthened. Contributors commented that they had achieved several months or work in just seven days by meeting face to face to sort out problems without other distractions.
Next year's Akademy will be co-hosted with Gnome's GUADEC and should be the biggest ever meeting of the free desktops. It will aim for greater than ever cooperation between the two communities to provide a smoother, more integrated and perhaps even more elegant experience for users of the free desktop everywhere.
First published in Linux Format Issue 136
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