2019: the year in review

2019 was a massive year for KDE. I’d like tho take the opportunity to highlight some of the biggest improvements and new features that arrived in this year:

Wayland

Though Plasma-on-Wayland is still not totally ready for prime time (and I understand now annoying this is), we made steady progress toward that goal, knocking out a number of blockers. 2019 featured Wayland support for virtual desktops, the proprietary NVIDIA driver, fractional scale factors, screen sharing and remote desktop, Spectacle’s Rectangular Region mode, and the Plasma widget explorer!

Plasma

One of the Plasma highlights this year is the totally rewritten notification system with a Do Not Disturb mode, per-app notification preferences, a sane history model, and loads of refinement and polish. It’s amazing, and it keeps getting better with each Plasma release!

Also very impactful has been a set of improvements in support for client-side-decorated GTK3 apps, including including shadows and extended resize areas and following the system’s color scheme. GNOME apps now look and feel right at home in Plasma!

Plasma also gained a systemwide Emoji input panel and a touch-friendly global edit mode for widgets. This allowed us to delete the Desktop Toolbox–that mystifying hamburger menu in the corner of the screen. Poof, no more!

In System Settings, there is finally full support for configuring touchpads using the Libinput driver, the Night Color feature was ported to X11, and the Workspace Behavior page gained two useful new controls that let you change the speed of all animations through Plasma and apps, and configure what happens when you click in a scrollbar track. In addition, many System Settings pages–particularly those in the Appearance section–have been modernized and given consistent user interfaces.

There were also many improvements to wallpaper configuration. The configuration window now displays the actual set of images that will be used, and the order is configurable. Picture Of The Day wallpapers can now pull images from unsplash.com.

To protect your privacy, Plasma now alerts you when an app is using the microphone.

Discover’s user interface and reliability dramatically improved across the board. I’m no longer seeing social media posts about how much people hate Discover (at least not the latest version; please make sure you’re up to date before you complain!). 🙂

Other miscellaneous features include a configurable grid size for desktop icons, user-customizable date display in the Clock widget, the ability to do calculation and unit conversion from Kickoff, and using slight RGB font hinting by default.

Finally, it became much easier to test and use a compiled-from-source Plasma version. Thanks to this, I’m now living on the master branch of Plasma all day, every day! It’s ridiculously stable, a testament to the incredibly high quality of Plasma’s codebase.

Applications & Frameworks

KDE’s flagship apps gained many amazing and useful new features. Among them:

Dolphin and file dialogs

Dolphin gained support for showing file creation dates, a feature to open folders from other apps in tabs instead of new windows, navigation history in a drop-down menu when you click-and-hold on the back or forward arrows, and animated previews in the Information Panel for video files and animated image files like GIFs. It also tells you what’s blocking unmounting a volume that contains open files, shows tags in the Places panel sidebar, and lets you search for tags.

Dolphin and other KDE apps gained file previews for Blender files, eBook files, .xps and Microsoft Office files.


Dolphin and the file dialogs also gained human-readable sort order descriptions and a brand new much better recent Documents feature.

File dialogs now let you easily switch between the same view modes as in Dolphin, and drag-and-drop a file into the main view to select that file or switch the view to that file’s folder (depending on whether it’s an open dialog or a save dialog).

Gwenview

Gwenview gained High DPI support, touch support, and a JPEG save quality chooser.

Spectacle

Spectacle gained the ability to open new instances or switch to existing instances when pressing the PrintScreen key while already running, configure its global keyboard shortcuts from its settings window, always copy a just-taken screenshot to the clipboard, auto-accept the dragged box in rectangular region mode, and remember the last-used rectangular region box. Rectangular Region mode also became touch-friendly.

Okular

Okular gained smooth scrolling and inertia with touch swipes, support for viewing and verifying digital signatures, and the ability to navigate both backwards and forward in touch mode. It also now remembers view mode, zoom settings, and sidebar view settings on a per-document basis.

Kate

Kate gained an LSP client, regained its old External Tools plugin, got the ability to show all invisible whitespace characters, and massively improved support on High DPI systems, particularly when using a fractional scale factor.

Konsole

Konsole got a tiling split view mode with drag-and-drop re-ordering:

Elisa

The Elisa music player gained an enormous amount of user interface polish, new features, and bugfixes–too many to list, really. It’s a powerful and user-friendly music player that’s fully supported and actively developed, and I encourage everyone to use it! Kubuntu is evaluating shipping it by default in their upcoming 20.04 release, and I hope others follow suit.

This is only a small subset of the new features announced throughout the year in my Usability & Productivity and This Week in KDE series, which in turn are small subsets of the full range of work done throughout KDE. Truly, our community is blessed with tireless contributors! Looking forward to 2020, I think we’re poised to achieve some truly amazing things that will catapult KDE Plasma and apps to the forefront of the Linux world. More on that tomorrow… 🙂

This week in KDE: holiday presents for you!

Though KDE contributors are mostly enjoying a well-deserved rest during the holiday season (hence the late post today, sorry about that), the community’s tireless souls have been laboring anyway to bring you new features and bugfixes anyway! Check ’em out:

New Features

Bugfixes & Performance Improvements

User Interface Improvements

 

How You Can Help

If you’ve got artistic talent, rev up your digital paintbrushes and try your hand at getting your work seen by millions of Plasma LTS users for years to come in our wallpaper competition: https://community.kde.org/KDE_Visual_Design_Group/Plasma_5.18_Wallpaper_Competition!

More generally, have a look at https://community.kde.org/Get_Involved and find out more ways to help be part of a project that really matters. Each contributor makes a huge difference in KDE; you are not a number or a cog in a machine! You don’t have to already be a programmer, either. I wasn’t when I got started. Try it, you’ll like it! We don’t bite!

Finally, consider making a tax-deductible donation to the KDE e.V. foundation.

This week in KDE: it’s gonna be amaaaaaaaaaaazing

Features and polish are coming in hot and heavy for Plasma and KDE apps! But have you heard about KDE’s wallpaper contest for Plasma 5.18? We held one of these for Plasma 5.16 and it resulted in the fantastic “Ice Cold” wallpaper, by Santiago Cézar. Now’s your chance to enter a wallpaper for Plasma 5.18, which is an LTS release, so it will be seen by millions of people for years! There are fabulous prizes by sponsor Tuxedo Computers. Check out the rules here: https://community.kde.org/KDE_Visual_Design_Group/Plasma_5.18_Wallpaper_Competition

New Features

Bugfixes & Performance Improvements

User Interface Improvements

How You Can Help

If you’ve got artistic talent, rev up your digital paintbrushes and try your hand at getting your work seen by millions of Plasma LTS users for years to come in our wallpaper competition: https://community.kde.org/KDE_Visual_Design_Group/Plasma_5.18_Wallpaper_Competition!

More generally, have a look at https://community.kde.org/Get_Involved and find out more ways to help be part of a project that really matters. Each contributor makes a huge difference in KDE; you are not a number or a cog in a machine! You don’t have to already be a programmer, either. I wasn’t when I got started. Try it, you’ll like it! We don’t bite!

Finally, consider making a tax-deductible donation to the KDE e.V. foundation.

This week in KDE: building up to something big

We’ve got some really big things planned and in progress for Plasma 5.18 and Frameworks, and work proceeds smoothly. None of it is quite done yet, but we did land a number of nice bugfixes and user interface polish for issues that have been irritating people for years…and mere days! Have a look:

New Features

Bugfixes & Performance Improvements

User Interface Improvements

How You Can Help

Do you like to categorize things? So do I! Then why not try your hand at triaging bugs? KDE’s faithful users file about 25 of them every day, and they all need to be looked at, categorized, moved to the correct products, marked appropriately, closed if the issue has already been fixed–in short, triaged. It’s fun and easy and can be done in 5-minute spurts during boring periods of the day. Triaging bugs is a super helpful way to relieve some of the developers’ burdens if you’re not a developer yourself–developers vastly prefer writing code and fixing bugs to triaging them! For more information, check out https://community.kde.org/Guidelines_and_HOWTOs/Bug_triaging!

More generally, have a look at https://community.kde.org/Get_Involved and find out more ways to help be part of a project that really matters. Each contributor makes a huge difference in KDE; you are not a number or a cog in a machine! You don’t have to already be a programmer, either. I wasn’t when I got started. Try it, you’ll like it! We don’t bite!

Finally, consider making a tax-deductible donation to the KDE e.V. foundation.

Legislating is patch review

Patch review is a process by which newcomers and experts debate proposed changes to a codebase–a textual description of how a particular human-created system is to function. In KDE, we use Phabricator for this, but we’re switching to GitLab soon. Both serve the same purpose: to provide a forum where proposed changes can be discussed, revised, and decided upon.

It occurred to me recently that this sounds a bit like the process of lawmaking. Politicians propose bills (patches) that amend their government’s code of laws (codebase) which are passed through committees and hearings (the review process) and eventually get voted on (reviewed) and either pass (get merged) or require revision (go around for updates), or fail (get abandoned).

Pictured: typical 18th-century patch review process

I’m reasonably confident that there’s little overlap between politicians and software enthusiasts. In my home country of the USA for example, most of our federal government politicians are former lawyers, businesspeople, or educators. “Software engineer” is listed as a “more unusual” former profession.

This strikes me as a shame, since the process of transforming a proposal for improvement on a systemic scale into a permanent alteration of the rules that affects everyone is quite unfamiliar to lawyers, businesspeople, and educators, but it’s quite natural so software people. We do it every day. Likewise, software people like us tend to have little experience in the lawmaking process. We act like we invented patch review, but our governments have been doing it for hundreds of years! The overlap got me thinking: perhaps there is something that each group can learn from one another.

 

Have a constitution

Governments write constitutions to make their foundational principles clear and obvious. That way, everybody knows which ideas are central to the society’s identity, which which ones are off-limits.

Lesson for software engineers: Make your software’s guiding principles, explicit, not implicit. People often figure this out organically, but it’s much easier if your software has a constitution-like document and clearly indicates which features are non-negotiable when it comes to proposing their implementation or removal.

 
 

Don’t neglect trust

If you have a bad relationship with the people reviewing your patch, they will suspect your motives, nitpick your changes, and generally react with low enthusiasm. Even if your patch is a good one, the reviewers’ opinion of it will be clouded by their judgment of you. Therefore, don’t neglect your social relationships and act like a jerk, or else the whole process basically doesn’t work.

Lesson for politicians: don’t ignore or damage your social relationships with your colleagues or else your entire job is a big waste of time. Adopt a mindset that legislation is a collaboration rather than a majority-rules deathmatch or an opportunity to make speeches on a stage. Also, arrive with pure motives. If you’re there to try to tilt the playing field towards your favored groups, the people who represent the opposite side will notice and oppose you at every turn, and you’re likely to have a frustrating and unproductive career full of outrage-filled press conferences but not much real accomplishment.

 
 

Review in stages

In governments, often bills undergo review by multiple committed before they’re presented to the full body for debate and voting. This is good, because it gives a chance for obvious mistakes to be corrected in advance of the final vote.

Lesson for software engineers: use a multi-step patch review process, with relevant experts in control at each step of the way. For example, the big-picture software architects should review a patch for to make sure it conceptually makes sense in the first place; then backend programmers should dive into its technical implementation; the UI designers should go over its user interface, and so on.

 
 

Keep patches small

Large patches are hard to review and fill the reviewers with a sense of dread. They touch many things and therefore have more opportunities to change something in a way that a stakeholder will object to. They often get bogged down in process and conceptual arguments. For these reasons, it’s best to keep patches small and focused, and split a large change into a series of individually-manageable patches that each depend on one another, known as a dependency chain.

Lesson for politicians: avoid 1,000 page mega-bills. If a bill needs to be enormous in order to work, there’s probably a deeper conceptual issue with it that everyone senses.

 
 

Have an institutional memory

Records of how bills are moved along in the lawmaking process are kept meticulously. This preserves institutional memory, so that newcomers don’t make the same mistakes that their older colleagues and forefathers already learned from.

Lesson for software engineers: Keep records of why decisions were made–and even more importantly, why they were reverted. This prevents the phenomenon of newcomers who propose the same changes and repeat the commit/regress/revert cycle.

 

Make reversion easy

When a patch causes regressions, it can be reverted. Oftentimes it’s better to fix it, but if the fixes are too invasive or the regressions outnumber the benefits, it may be a better idea to revert the change and try again. Making reversion easy promotes a culture of innovation and experimentation. People won’t be as worried about merging things, because if they cause problems, it’s easy to undo the changes. Change becomes playful and fun, rather than consequential and scary.

Lesson for politicians: Don’t make it too hard to repeal bad laws. When a newly-passed law causes problems in a society, it’s tempting to try to amend it to fix the problems, and sometimes this works. But sometimes it just needs to be re-done from scratch, like a bad patch in software. Being willing to repeal laws that aren’t working defuses tension. That said…

 

Don’t rush

Bills and patches that get through their processes quickly are often problematic, riddled with unseen regressions and unanticipated consequences. This is much less common in governments, because the lawmaking process usually has deliberate safeguards put in place to ensure that a bill is not transformed into a law too quickly before there’s been adequate time for debate.

Lesson for software engineers: Take your time so you don’t push out buggy, regression-filled software. However…

 
 

Don’t make your users live on the master branch

Rushing isn’t such a huge deal as long as you have a QA process and discrete releases. These tools provide time for regressions to be fixed and rough edges to be smoothed out. When patches can be evaluated in a safe sandbox of sorts and subsequently tweaked before their effects are released to users, it’s not so bad to move quickly. But you can’t expose your users to the churn stirred up by a fast process; it needs to be contained internally.

Lesson for politicians: You don’t need so much process surrounding lawmaking if you don’t roll out all approved changes immediately. Before new bills take effect, let them simmer for a while in a “release branch” where they can undergo QA so that regressions can be found before they’re inflicted on unsuspected citizens (users)!

 

As software people, there are lessons we can take from our governments’ successes (and more often these days it seems, their failures), because this aspect of our professions overlaps quite a bit. It also exposes an uncomfortable truth: changing the rules and behaviors of a system that effects everyone is inherently political. That’s why we invented patch review processes: to make sure that important voices are heard, that the system doesn’t become inhumane for people who depend on it, and that its overall trajectory is positive.

Personally I’m a lot more sanguine about the prospect of this in software than government right now, and I think that’s something that needs to change. The efficacy and positive societal impacts of our governments’ lawmaking seems to be at a bit of an ebb at this moment in time. But there may come a point in time when our experience in patch review becomes useful on a larger stage, and benefits not only users of KDE software, but also the people of the world. We shouldn’t shy away from politics. Our everyday experiences in KDE are in fact the prefect preparation! Far from being distant and scary, it’s something we’re engaging in–and succeeding at–every time we contribute to KDE.

This week in KDE: Easy Emoji input and more

Something cool this way comes… easy Emoji input! Speaking personally, lack of easy Emoji input on Plasma has been irritation for years. But no longer! Plasma now has a built-in Emoji chooser similar to the ones on other competing operating systems. Ours is invoked with the Meta+period keyboard shortcut.

Here it is:

Let’s give a big hand to to Aleix Pol Gonzalez for implementing this! It’ll be available in Plasma 5.18, and in the meantime we’re going to continue to improve its polish, integration, and discoverability.

More New Features

Bugfixes & Performance Improvements

User Interface Improvements

How You Can Help

Ar you good at web design? KDE has approximately five hundred million (okay, slight exaggeration) websites in need of visual refreshing and technical improvement! Our web team is desperately overworked and in need of help–yours, perhaps. 🙂 Each individual person who joins in will be making a humongous difference! If this sounds like your cup of tea, check out https://community.kde.org/KDE.org

More generally, have a look at https://community.kde.org/Get_Involved and find out more ways to help be part of a project that really matters. Each contributor makes a huge difference in KDE; you are not a number or a cog in a machine! You don’t have to already be a programmer, either. I wasn’t when I got started. Try it, you’ll like it! We don’t bite!

Finally, consider making a tax-deductible donation to the KDE e.V. foundation.