This year I gave a talk at Akademy about my vision for how to get KDE’s software onto more hardware, and therefore more easily into the hands of our users. If you’re interested, here’s a recording! my talk begins at 1:44. Hope you enjoy it. 🙂
My new laptop arrived last week and I’ve been using it since then! Here are my impressions so far of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga (gen 4), and how it compares to my old laptop, a 2016 HP Spectre x360:
Case and ports
Top-notch quality. The laptop feels lightweight given its size, and it is very rigid. I had worried that the dark aluminum case would show fingerprints, but it’s not a problem. Port selection is generous: 2 USB-C+Thunderbolt+charging ports, 2 USB-A ports, an HDMI port, and a combo audio jack. Perfectly sufficient for my purposes, and better than the laptop it replaced! I do wish the USB-C ports were more snug, though. USB-C cables tend to wiggle around when plugged in. Also it would be nice if the lid could be opened with one hand, but that’s a very minor nitpick. Overall it is solidly better than my old laptop.
The Thinkpad X1 Yoga’s 4K screen is unbelievable. Color reproduction is excellent, there is no significant ghosting, and brightness goes high enough to use it outdoors without limitation. I turn the brightness down to 50% when using it indoors. It’s by far the best screen I’ve ever had the pleasure of using, and a huge upgrade over my old laptop!
The keyboard feel is perfect; typing on it is a dream! And its black keys contrast perfectly with the white backlighting to produce a good low-light typing experience too. However the layout of the keys presents a few annoyances that I’m having to get used to:
- Left Fn and Ctrl keys are reversed compared to every other PC laptop keyboard. This can be changed in the BIOS, but then the labels don’t match the functionality, which is somehow even more confusing.
- The PrintScreen key is located between the right Alt and Ctrl keys, and I find myself constantly pressing it when I mean to press the right Alt key, especially to hit Alt+Left to go back in Dolphin or Firefox. Seems like a weird place to put it.
- The Home and End Keys are located up at the top of the keyboard, away from the arrow keys. I find myself wishing they were in a column at the right side of the keyboard as on my old laptop, where they were easier to press without changing the positioning of my right hand which often hovers around the arrows.
- There are no dedicated media playback keys. This is not a major issue as I have mapped Alt+Ctrl left/right/space to those functions in Plasma’s shortcuts KCM. Still, I do miss the dedicated keys.
- Toggling the keyboard backlight is done with Fn+Space, rather than a dedicated key. Also the multi-level brightness feature seems kind of superfluous. Simple on/off modes would be better IMO. Not really a big deal though.
Overall, compared to my old HP Spectre x360 laptop, I would say I prefer the typing feel and black key color of the Lenovo’s keyboard, but prefer the key layout of the HP’s keyboard.
The touchpad is perfect. It’s just the right size: not too big, and not too small. The glass-covered surface makes it a pleasure to use. With the Libinput driver, thumb and palm rejection are perfect, enabling my favorite way of using a touchpad: with my right thumb lazily resting at the bottom as if there were a physical button there. I click with the thumb and use the rest of my fingers to move the cursor or perform scrolling gestures. This is how I got used to using Mac touchpads back when I was an Apple user and the Lenovo’s hardware is good enough to replicate that. It’s not quite Mac quality, but I’d say the experience is 90% there. It’s really, really good, and a huge upgrade from my old laptop whose trackpad was a bit worse in almost every way.
The speakers sounded great in Windows during my initial test so I know that the hardware is quite capable. However, on Linux the sound is not so good, and more work is needed on the driver side. So at the moment, the speakers are a disappointment and a regression compared to my old laptop, but hopefully improved audio drivers will make them better in the future.
The camera is horrible, which is an unwelcome surprise for this very expensive computer. Its resolution is a very low 720p, and there is noticeable lag/latency, which makes video conferencing annoying for other people as my mouth does not match my words. This is a significant regression compared to my old laptop, which had a 1080p camera with no appreciable lag. I didn’t test the camera in Windows before installing openSUSE Tumbleweed, so I don’t know if the lag is a hardware limitation or a driver bug.
On the software side, things have not been as good.
Installing openSUSE Tumbleweed was not too big of a hassle, given that I’ve done this a number of times before. I had to disable secure boot, which entailed a trip to the BIOS and bricking Windows. After installation, a number of local workarounds were required to make things function, in particular the audio, which still does not seem to be working properly. Just check out the relevant Arch Wiki pages! That’s a lot of stuff that you need to fix manually. After the OS was installed, I started to run into other issues:
Speakers and sound
Initially, the speakers were not detected at all. The relevant Arch Wiki page was very helpful here: installing the
sof-firmware package fixed that, but then the audio quality was horrible. Compiling PulseAudio from source to get version 14 (which is not released yet) made it better, but still not as good as it was on Windows. I have filed a bug on PulseAudio as it seems like more work is needed: https://gitlab.freedesktop.org/pulseaudio/pulseaudio/-/issues/914
Also, there are pointless devices corresponding to the three HDMI/DisplayPort audio outputs, which should not be shown unless they’re actually in use. This affects both the Plasma audio applet as well as the Pavucontrol app:
It’s not totally clear to me whose fault this is, so I filed a bug on PulseAudio and also one on plasma-pa. We may be able to improve the display in Plasma at least, and I’m working on a merge request.
Battery life is poor. This laptop has a 51 watt-hour battery (up from 42 Wh on my previous laptop), but draws between 8 and 10 watts at idle. When actually using the machine, I’m only getting about 4 hours of battery life! Reviewers said that it got at least 7 hours in Windows, so this is pretty terrible.
powertop reports that the display backlight uses 10 watts of power at full brightness, 5 watts when at its lowest level, and 4 watts when turned off entirely! And the bottom of the case is always warm, so perhaps the CPU is also not idling enough. So I suspect that there are some performance and power management bugs somewhere, as this level of power consumption does not seem expected, even with the 4K screen. On the plus side, at least the laptop charges very quickly with the included 65W charger. I have not filed any bugs on this particular set of issues yet as I’m not suite sure where to start.
Out of the box, the touchscreen did not work properly on X11 with Plasma, KDE apps, and other Qt apps–but it did work with GNOME and Electron apps! After filing a bug report on Qt, I discovered that switching to the libinput driver fixes the issue! To do this, you can uninstall the
xf86-input-wacom package (which will also remove the Wacom page in System Settings, which may be undesirable if you’re using it) or alternatively you can apply the following patch to
diff -rubd /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d/70-wacom.conf.orig /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d/70-wacom.conf --- /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d/70-wacom.conf.orig 2020-06-08 08:08:01.576986784 -0600 +++ /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d/70-wacom.conf 2020-06-08 08:07:04.624218429 -0600 @@ -19,7 +19,7 @@ MatchUSBID "056a:*" MatchDevicePath "/dev/input/event*" MatchIsTouchscreen "true" - Driver "wacom" + Driver "libinput" EndSection Section "InputClass" @@ -43,7 +43,7 @@ MatchProduct "Wacom|WACOM|PTK-540WL|ISD-V4" MatchDevicePath "/dev/input/event*" MatchIsTouchscreen "true" - Driver "wacom" + Driver "libinput" EndSection Section "InputClass"
Ubuntu has already made a similar change to their packaging and I filed a bug report for openSUSE as well: https://bugzilla.opensuse.org/show_bug.cgi?id=1172669.
Next up, touch scrolling did not work in Firefox. I already knew how to fix this, and I’ll teach you too:
/etc/environmentfile. This turns on touchscreen scrolling and enables pixel-by-pixel touchpad scrolling.
- Doing the above triggers a nasty bug that breaks scrolling when a notification appears, but you can work around that as follows: Open System Settings > Window Management > Window Behavior > Uncheck “Click raises active window”.
Obviously we should just fix the KWin bug that makes this workaround necessary. We eventually will!
After this, touch input works well, especially for GTK apps. We have a lot of work to do to make our own KDE apps work as well with a touchscreen as GTK apps do on average.
Broken Flatpak apps
I briefly encountered an issue where none of my Flatpak apps would launch:
$ flatpak run com.discordapp.Discord Gtk-Message: 07:05:34.667: Failed to load module "unity-gtk-module" Gtk-Message: 07:05:34.667: Failed to load module "canberra-gtk-module" No protocol specified (Discord:4): Gtk-WARNING **: 07:05:34.667: cannot open display: :99.0 [fake-sandbox: zypak-sandbox] No data could be read (host died?) [fake-sandbox: zypak-sandbox] Quitting Zygote...
This utterly bizarre issue turned out to have been caused by me setting the computer’s hostname incorrectly, using
sudo hostname <new hostname> instead of
sudo hostnamectl set-hostname <new hostname> which triggers an SDDM bug which is fixed by the following open pull request: https://github.com/sddm/sddm/pull/1230. Hopefully the SDDM bug will be fixed soon, and in any event I should just add a GUI method of setting the computer’s hostname which I’ve been meaning to do for a while. See https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=259285.
Scaling issues in Plasma
On X11, Plasma did not auto-detect that I was using a 4K screen, so I had to manually change the scale in the KScreen KCM. Then I had to manually sync that to SDDM in the SDDM KCM to make the login screen not look tiny. It would be nice if the appropriate scale factor would be autodetected, at least for 4k screens. I have filed https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=422552. Happily, this already works out of the box on Wayland! So go Wayland.
In addition, once I did set a 200% scale factor, all the icons in Plasma looked tiny, making everything hideous. This is https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=356446, and I worked around it by setting
PLASMA_USE_QT_SCALING=1 in the environment, which fixes the issue and makes Plasma look fantastic at 200% scaling. However it also makes the minimize animation zoom into the wrong location. Boooo! As before, all this stuff works out-of-the-box on Wayland. Hmm…
Once I had the scale properly set, I noticed that various UI elements were not automatically scaled:
- Certain Task Switchers: https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=422547
- Cursors: https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=422548
- Plasma dialog/popup/panel shadows: https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=422559
- Default window sizes: https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=422549
- Breeze window decoration corner radius: https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=422551
The first three actually work fine on Wayland! So I’m getting the sense that I should just bite the bullet and use Wayland, since the high DPI behavior is much better.
Next, I incrased the scale to 250% to make everything a bit bigger, and then various icons that are supposed to be monochrome became colorful. This is a minor issue, but I’ve submitted a patch to fix it: https://invent.kde.org/frameworks/breeze-icons/-/merge_requests/3
Anyway, other than these issues, scaling works great. We’re pretty close, I think.
Conclusion and the future
I wish I could say that it’s been a pleasant, trouble-free experience and that I’m loving my new computer. In truth, getting the ThinkPad X1 Yoga to function well enough to comfortably write this post took several frustrating days of poring over documentation, filing bug reports, tweaking config files, and altering kernel parameters. On top of that, it’s still not quite there yet and is worse than my old laptop in several ways despite costing twice as much money. The high DPI scaling issues are our fault in KDE, and we need to do better, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The problems run throughout the entire software stack. Simply put, this is not acceptable in 2020. We need to up our game of partnering with hardware makers to ship FOSS operating systems by default. Everything I’m going through with this computer is the kind of problem that should be caught by paid Linux QA teams so that it can be fixed before the hardware is released to customers.
I continue to believe that we will get nowhere until more hardware comes with a Linux-based OS pre-installed. People shouldn’t have to deal with this kind of nonsense! My wife has been happily using KDE Neon on her laptop for two years, but I had to do the initial installation. Normal people want their computers to just work, not endlessly fiddle around with settings to make things functional that should have been so out of the box in the first place.
Part of me wishes I had instead gone with the SlimBook Pro X 15 or the System76 Lemur Pro, which were strong contenders in my search. The SlimBook laptop can even be pre-installed with Plasma-bearing operating systems like KDE Neon and Kubuntu, and I’m sure the System76 folks would have done likewise had I asked nicely enough. Everything would have worked perfectly out of the box, because SlimBook and System76 have QA teams paid to do what I’ve been doing myself for the ThinkPad X1 Yoga. Alas those laptops didn’t have some of what I was looking for in the hardware department (principally touchscreens and higher quality speakers), but perhaps I was underestimating the importance of integration into a cohesive product. It certainly stands in stark relief right now.
I’m sure things will get better over time. Kernel fixes will accumulate, and the bug reports I’ve filed will start to get fixed. I may even fix some of them myself. But this state of affairs is simply not acceptable if we ever want to grow our audience beyond the ranks of tech nerds. No normal person spends over than a thousand dollars on a laptop for real productive purposes that will have to become an extended science experiment before it works properly. We need more hardware sold with our software pre-installed, period. That’s the next frontier, and I strongly believe that we need to make it our end goal for everything we do.
Yesterday I summarized some of my favorite new features, both big and small, added to KDE’s software catalog in 2019. Today I’d like to talk about the major features and improvements I expect for 2020. Note that this is not an official planning document, it’s just what I anticipate happening and plan to push for and help implement. Without further ado…
These features are pretty much guaranteed, as they’re almost done or even in the process of landing:
FUSE mounts to better support accessing remote locations in non-KDE apps
Not mounting remote locations has been a longstanding deficiency in the KIO library that does file I/O throughout KDE software. Without this feature, users of non-KDE 3rd-party apps experience frustration when opening large files or streaming videos located on remote locations, when saving changes to those files, and when trying to to File > Save As to make a copy alongside the original.
Throughout much of 2019, a FUSE mount solution has been in development that alleviates these issues! You may have read it about on the blog of Alexander Saoutkin, one of the principal developers working on the feature.
A truly enormous amount of work has already been done, and at this point only a few more bits are needed before we can formally roll it out:
- KIO::Open support in KIO-FUSE itself
- File truncation support in KIO to support true random-access reading
- Adoption of this file truncation support for Samba and SFTP protocols
- On-the-fly translation of network URLs into FUSE paths to ensure seamless mounting of accessed network resources
When the patches for these improvements land, we will have full feature parity with the FUSE-based GVFS system that GNOME uses and the mount-based system in macOS! The patches are in progress and I expect them to all land in the next two or three months.
Privilege escalation in KIO and Dolphin
I’ve been promising this for years, talking about how it’s 90% done, then 99%, then 99.9%… you get the idea. I know, I know, I’m the boy who cried wolf at this point! Well, this time we really are on the cusp of victory. There is only a single patch left before we can formally turn it on! Once this happens, you will finally be able to create, move, rename etc. root-owned files in Dolphin without needing to run Dolphin as root or using a hacky extension.
Improved Samba share discovery in Dolphin
We have a patch that implements the WS-DISCOVERY protocol in Dolphin, allowing it to find Windows Samba shares on your local network, which are currently invisible. This has been a longstanding problem, but it’s now finally getting fixed! I expect this patch to land in the next few months, in time for Dolphin’s 20.04 release.
Auto-rotation for tablets, convertibles, and other hardware with rotation sensors
There’s an absolutely enormous patchset that implements this much-awaited feature. More than half of the patches have already landed, so the rest aren’t far behind. I have my doubts that this will make it into Plasma 5.18, but 5.19 is almost certain.
These features are likely, but not guaranteed:
Implement more of the proposed visual design changes to the Breeze style and KDE apps
The KDE VDG now has an exhaustive plan and sets of mockups for how we’d like to evolve Breeze, Plasma, and KDE apps in the near future: https://phabricator.kde.org/T10891. Check out the dependency graph! Here are some examples:
Pretty hot stuff, huh!?
Bits of it are already getting done. In 2019, we completed a UI overhaul of Plasma and many apps’ configuration windows to use the Form Layout style and a sidebar UI redesign, both of which have been quite well received. And there’s a new SimpleMenu based on VDG mockups in the works, which we hope to replace Kickoff as the default.
I don’t know if everything here will get implemented, but I expect us to push forward with a lot of it!
Better wallpapers in the extra wallpapers repo
A lot of the wallpapers in the plasma-workspace-wallpapers repo (which is optional but installed by default in many KDE distros including Neon, Kubuntu, and Manjaro) are a bit long in the tooth. Thankfully, we have a patch queued up and ready to go that will replace them with modern, beautiful, 4K wallpapers. Unfortunately this patch is blocked by the lack of a wallpaper cache, which means if we replace a wallpaper that someone is currently using, they’ll see a black screen after they upgrade. Not very nice. We’d like to cache the current wallpaper so that this doesn’t happen. I’m hoping we land the cache feature early in 2020 so that the next Plasma release after it can get the improved wallpaper selection.
These features are less likely (bordering on unlikely), but could get in with enough development work!
Per-screen scale factors on X11
There’s a patch implementing this feature that has been rejected thus far because it was not technically correct with the way Qt handled scaling at the time. However Qt 5.14 implements some backend changes that would appear to make this possible. I can’t promise anything but I plan to investigate this to see if it’s something we can do once Plasma depends on Qt 5.14, or if it’s feasible to add the feature earlier than that with a bunch of ifdefconditionals in the code to only turn it on for people using Qt 5.14.
Inertial scrolling throughout Plasma and QML apps
In theory, this is easy-ish. In practice, there are a lot of moving parts. Preliminary work began a few weeks ago, but there’s a lot to do before we can make it all work. It’s on the workboard though!
Power/session controls on the lock screen
This is something needed for Plasma Mobile, and all the Plasma developers agree that it’s fine to have on the desktop too. Development has not yet started, but it might!
What do you think? Seems like a bunch of worthwhile stuff, right? I see these features and improvements as critical for my ultimate goal of making Plasma and KDE apps irresistible for hardware vendors to ship by default (most of them at least; better wallpapers are nice but not critical). I want to make our offerings so good, and for KDE in general to be such a good upstream, that companies trip over each other to put Plasma and KDE apps on their devices! I think ultimately that’s the best way to get our software in front of more users.
If this sounds exciting to you, please feel free to help out–especially for items in the “Likely” and “Moonshot” lists, which are less certain to happen without help. You can help out by testing patches, implementing mockups, hacking on the new features, etc. For more information, visit https://community.kde.org/Get_Involved. It’ll be interesting to check back at the end of 2020 to see how many of these projects have been completed. With your help… hopefully all of them!
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:
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!
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.
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).
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 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 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.
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… 🙂
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).
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. While lawyers, businesspeople, and educators are quite unfamiliar with the process of transforming a proposal for improvement on a systemic scale into a permanent alteration of the rules that affects everyone, software people do it every day. Likewise, software people like us tend to have little experience in the political 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, and 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. If you move from one infrastructure system to another, migrate all the data so history isn’t lost. 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…
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 the moment. 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 be afraid of 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. I think it’s time for us to become active in applying those lessons to the societies that we live in.
KDE’s Usability & Productivity initiative is now almost two years old, and I’ve been blogging weekly progress for a year and a half. So I thought it would be a good time to take stock of the situation: how far we’ve come, and what’s left to do. Let’s dive right in! Here’s a short list of some of the achievements we’ve accomplished:
- Full support for configuring mice and touchpads using the Libinput driver on both X11 and Wayland
- A brand new notification system with hugely improved usability for common workflows
- Better default text contrast and font rendering settings
- Massive, far-reaching user interface and performance improvements for Discover
- Huge user interface improvements to the open/save dialogs
- Many performance and reliability improvements for the Baloo file indexing service
- “Open Containing Folder” actions added throughout KDE apps
- A variety of usability-related bugfixes, new features, and user interface upgrades for Spectacle
- Typewriter/text box annotation tool in Okular
- Support for showing file creation dates
- Easy support for file tagging in Dolphin, and a more useful and comprehensible Places panel
- Slideshow wallpaper configuration that shows the actual images that will be a part of the slideshow
- Configurable grid size/maximum label width for files and folders on the desktop
- Better lock and login screens
- Consistent styles (grid views and centered form layouts) for settings windows throughout KDE software
- Simplified and more comprehensible user interface for many System Settings pages
- Bugfixing and user interface improvements throughout the whole software stack
It’s a lot of great stuff!
There’s still more to do, of course. KIO still doesn’t mount network locations locally, though that’s being actively worked on! Touchpad scrolling behavior has improved, but is still not consistent across all KDE apps and there’s no inertial scrolling yet. Samba sharing is improving, but still rough. Okular’s annotations are becoming more full-featured, compatible, and discoverable, yet more work is still needed. More System Settings pages still need to have their user interface overhauled. But are you seeing a pattern here!? Things are happening! The trajectory is really good! It’s unbelievable how many of the rough edges have gotten smoothed out over the past two years, and I feel super upbeat about the state of KDE’s software offering!
With this kind of ongoing work, KDE’s software moves ever closer to the day when I envision that it has become humanity’s preeminent computing platform. It will take time, but open-source software is immortal as long as people care about it. And the KDE community clearly does! So slowly but surely we continue, improving year by year as competitors stagnate, drop out, or are corrupted by the lures of money and power. It will be a KDE world.
I’d like to offer a congratulations to the incredible KDE community. This all is not my work… it’s yours! The passion that people feel for this stuff is amazing, and it’s not misplaced: more and more KDE software becoming best-in-class in its product category. The future is bright, very bright. Thanks again, everyone.
A few days ago Jupiter Broadcasting’s Chris Fisher approached me about doing an interview for his Linux Unplugged podcast, so I said sure! I talked about the Usability & Productivity initiative, Kubuntu and KDE Neon, my history at Apple, and sustainable funding models for open-source development.
Awesomely enough, it turns out that their systems all run Kubuntu 18.04, and Chris calls it “the best distro we’ve ever used in production.” Now that’s what I like to hear! It’s exactly what the Usability & Productivity initiative is all about: making KDE software a lean, mean, productivity machine for creators and professionals.
You can listen to the show here: https://linuxunplugged.com/268. My segment starts at about the 25 minute mark.
I had the pleasure of attending Akademy this year–my first time. Not only that, the organizers were actually crazy enough to let me give a talk! In it, I discuss my view of how we can systematically improve the competitiveness and reach of KDE Plasma and KDE apps, and what you can do to be a part of this effort. This master plan is what guides my KDE work. I talk about how the Usability & Productivity initiative fits into the plan, but the plan itself is much more ambitious. If you’ve ever wondered whether there’s a method to my madness… here it is!
If you’re interested, the Akademy organizers have posted a video of it:
If you feel like this effort is worthwhile and that my leadership of it is important, consider becoming a patron on Patreon, LiberaPay, or PayPal. Also consider making a donation to the KDE e.V. foundation.