Keeping up with the Unitys: KDE's Plasma Netbook

Canonical is forcing Unity down its users' throats, whereas KDE is providing an option for the desktop or netbook.

Last week when I wrote about Canonical’s decision to go with Unity on Wayland I mentioned traditional desktop interfaces are mostly unsuitable for more mobile computers, including tablets, phones and netbooks. I should have been more specific about the interfaces themselves and not the software used to build them and, as the KDE developers pointed out to me, the Plasma Netbook workspace is an alternative for today’s smaller screens.

The popular open source and commercial desktops of Windows 7, Mac OS X and GNOME and KDE are well suited to the opulent widescreen monitors that plant themselves on computer desks like the one I’m sitting in front of now.

A problem arrises when you attempt to squeeze the features of a full desktop onto a device without as much screen real estate. Cascading menus is a classic example. I was never a fan of cascading menus, but they work for a desktop interface with a large monitor. On a smaller screen, however, they are impractical.

As I’ve said in the past, Microsoft has tried hard to fit its desktop interface on every type of smaller device (even mobile phones) without a lot success.

In today’s mobile computing environment people have caught on to more modern UIs that are nothing like Windows, but are intuitive and easy to learn. And the radical redesign of Windows Phone 7 is testament to this paradigm shift.

Canonical’s move to the Unity desktop from the standard GNOME is also indicative of a desire to “branch out” from the desktop to the handheld.

So when I mentioned KDE in the list of desktop environments unsuitable for mobile devices, KDE’s marketing folks pulled me up with a loud “me too” and made sure I was not leaving its own netbook developments out of the picture.

For the past few years KDE has been working on some fancy software dubbed Plasma that is designed to work across any type of display – from mobile phones to media centres.

Plasma is a set of APIs that makes building widgets and other applications easier. Developers can use C++ or a scripting language like JavaScript (yes, JavaScript) to create Plasma widgets and they are portable (it even runs on Symbian).

As Canonical moves to make its Unity environment the face of Ubuntu, the KDE developers reminded me that their Plasma Netbook interface has been in development for a couple of years now and they have recognised the need for different interfaces for different devices.

Plasma Netbook workspace is “custom designed for netbooks and similar devices” say its developers.

“We are in the fortunate position of having realised a few years back that there would be a need for different interfaces on different devices,” says KDE marketing team member Stuart Jarvis.

“Our solution, the Plasma framework, can be scaled and customised for everything from traditional desktop computing to mobile phones (work on a Plasma Mobile workspace is in progress).”

Despite the presence of some pretty big names in the mobile OS market (think Apple, Google and Microsoft) what interests me about KDE’s Plasma Netbook effort is it is a community project that isn’t being driven by a corporate overlord.

Canonical is forcing Unity down its users’ throats, whereas KDE is providing an option for the desktop or netbook.

And in fairness to Canonical, its KDE-centric distribution, Kubuntu, does include an option for the Netbook workspace, as does the Novell-backed OpenSUSE.

Nokia is the only big name mobile operating system vendor that comes close to Plasma Netbook, but even it has its own interests with MeeGo.

Plasma Netbook is a true open source, community-driven project for mobile computers.

I would love to see more netbook and tablet-oriented Linux distributors and device droppers take Plasma Netbook under their wing. It’s an exciting software project that has so far stayed out of the limelight.

Rodney Gedda is Editor of TechWorld Australia. Follow Rodney on Twitter at @rodneygedda. Rodney's e-mail address is Follow TechWorld Australia on Twitter at @Techworld_AU.

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Tags ubuntucanonicalplasmakdenetbookskubuntukde4KDE Plasma Netbook

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