Updated: December 23, 2016
Behold, for we are doing it again. Several days ago, I've given you an interview with the MX Linux team developer Dolphin Oracle. It was a very interesting glimpse into how a small, passionate community runs their project.
Now, we will expand and look at the far end of the Linux spectrum - the KDE community, one of the oldest, largest, most prolific, and most influential software and technology houses in the open-source world. And we will not have just one interviewee, but two! Sebastian Kugler and Bhushan Shah. Let us commence.
I hope I got the genitive case right. And for those asking, Avus et Ursus? Grandpa and Bear! Dedoimedo!
Can you introduce yourselves, guys.
Sebastian Kugler (SK): I'm a software developer living in the Netherlands. I've been contributing to various KDE and other Free software projects for 15 years. I have worked on Plasma from when it was born. I work for Blue Systems, where I coordinate our KDE and Free Software related activities and manage daily operations. My favorite hobby is scuba diving, and I also enjoy photography, traveling, whale conservation, cooking, music, and of course technology.
Bhushan Shah (BS): I am KDE developer from India, I'm a relatively new contributor compared to Sebastian, I started contributing to KDE ~4 years back, from the start I worked on Plasma 5. I am currently employed by Blue Systems to work on Plasma Mobile. I am also one of the administrators of the KDE Student Programs team, which is targeted towards students who wants to participate in KDE development.
Bhushan, please tell us a little more about your involvement with the Indian community.
BS: Initially when I was still learning different aspects of KDE development, I was invited to conf.kde.in 2013 in Gandhinagar, India to speak about my experience with the KDE community. Ever since, I have been a part of the KDE India community. I am helping with the organization of conf.kde.in, and also we organize various workshops and promotional events.
Seb, what's the story behind KDE?
SK: We're basically a bunch of hackers with attention to detail and great determination. Kidding aside, KDE is one of the oldest and largest Free software projects in the world, it eases the daily lives of tens of millions of users and promotes Freedom and privacy in a very practical and effective manner. KDE is a great collaboration project and it brings people from so many backgrounds together to create and collaborate. It's built on solid values, practices and a shared sense of responsibility. It gives people a place to shine, to channel their creativity and to work with others and learn from each other. To me personally, it offers the working environment I feel allows me to strive and feel productive and proud of my work.
Bhushan, what is Plasma Mobile?
BS: Plasma Mobile is a free and open-source customizable platform for mobile devices. Currently Plasma Mobile is available for LG Nexus 5 as a prototype. Unlike other platforms, Plasma Mobile platform is open to 3rd party applications.
Kirigami is another project related to Plasma Mobile. Kirigami provides the set of components and various UI/UX patterns to develop the applications that can run on any mobile or desktop operating system.
Both of you guys, what is your perspective on how well KDE/Plasma is doing right now? Is it heading in the right direction? Is it achieving what it's supposed to be achieving?
SK: In general, I'd answer with a resounding yes. I think that we are in excellent place right now. Our heading is right as well, as projects like Kirigami, which really embodies our vision of modern user interfaces. I think we've also learnt to strike a better balance between functionality and visuals, improving the visuals in a sustainable manner, while not sacrificing functionality to "clean up the UI."
BS: I would agree with Sebastian, KDE's main vision is a world where everyone has control over their digital life and enjoys freedom and privacy. Projects like Plasma Mobile, which is a free and open platform, provides the user with full control over their digital life. So I believe yes, we are currently heading in the right direction.
Seb, what is the long-term strategy for Plasma?
SK: Basically, quality and flexibility. We want Plasma to be a highly reliable workhorse that allows being productive and do that in an elegant way. We want Plasma to be the best tool for the job, but also to breathe quality. At the same time, we want to make Plasma technology available on a wider range of devices, as this allows us to be more effective in our goal to help the user get work done. Plasma Mobile is one such project, Kirigami another good example.
With Free software having become the standard rather than the exception in for many users, we want to include privacy in our focus. Plasma should be a tool allowing the user to control her own identity, we think that this is perhaps the greatest contribution we can make to users' lives, and it is one that commercial competitors often cannot offer by their nature. Privacy is a threatened good, and we want Plasma to be a useful tool protecting it, elegantly.
In the past, I used to love KDE 3.5. Then KDE 4.0 can along, and it was merely okay. Plasma was amazing at first. Recently, though, I am struggling to find the same level of quality, appeal and magic as I used to only a year and a half ago? My perception is that there's too much happening, and just not enough resources to cover everything with sustainable, consistent quality. What would you say to that?
SK: Partly, yes. I think that this is part of a natural process, however. Things change at different rates over time, and for newer technology, it often takes a few releases to settle down, that is not something we can entirely avoid, as iterative improvement is at the very core of our creation process. On the other hand, we do realize that the amount of work (and thus change) that goes into Plasma may not match their, let's day, digestion capacity. This demand for continuity is one of the reasons why we have made Plasma 5.8 a long-term supported release.
BS: I agree with you that too much has happened over the period of one and a half year. But in my opinion that too much was to improve quality and user experience and not to degrade the overall quality. In the initial (5.0) release, our goal was to have a functional Qt5 based Plasma Workspaces, but as new versions were released, we've shifted focus towards the stability and fixing the pain points of the users.
Do you think Plasma has too much detail?
SK: Yes, but at the same time this flexibility is what makes us stand out. We try to improve the presentation of these features in an easy way, with the full power available when needed. Our mantra "simple when possible, powerful when needed" reflects this ambiguity and how we want to solve it well.
I do have to agree that Plasma has a lot of goodies, but it can be sometimes overwhelming. The balance is tricky.
Why is customization more difficult in Plasma than before?
SK: Could you give examples? In general, Plasma has become more configurable and flexible, both in smaller features, but as well in architectural ways, such as the switchable workspaces. This flexibility comes at the cost that now there are even more options, which does have a certain effect on how easy it feels to customize Plasma. It's partly inherent to our goal, but partly also about visual presentation.
BS: Personally this is the first time I am hearing this, in general I've received feedback saying Plasma is the most configurable desktop environment out there. And this is true both for distributions and the end-user... so yeah, as Sebastian asked, I also would be interested in examples.
DM: I believe some of the problems I have outlined in my recent reviews do clarify the issue at hand. Namely, it is very difficult to find new suitable themes and icons, lots of the available packages are broken, and Breeze light and dark cannot be blended.
Beautiful themes and icons cannot really be installed.
What will be the three killer feature of Plasma, or whatever its successor is going to be in 2020?
SK: Freedom, privacy and quality.
Do you think we will ever have the Year of Linux?
SK: That depends a lot. I have an economic background, so to me, it's mostly down to adoption rate and market
segmentation. For Plasma specifically, I think we're in a pretty good position to increase market share: bigger
architectural changes are mostly behind us, we can and will focus more on detail and quality for the desktop
offering, and I hope that our mobile technologies pick up slack in its tail wave. Our technical foundations,
collaboration processes, tools and infrastructure have been modernized in the past years. These are things that
often lead to happier users in the long term, and that's really
what counts to the user: does the tool do the job elegantly. In a way, it's even a non-goal for us: privacy means that we allow the user to limit the trails of information, so perhaps the best case is that the Linux desktop happens without anyone noticing.
Seb, how do you work with the rest of the team?
SK: On a daily basis, we hang out in the #plasma channel on Freenode's IRC network. We also do video conferences quite often. In the past year, we've adopted phabricator in our development workflows, which has quickly become one of our cornerstones in collaboration on patches, design mockups, and task workboards. Our development process is open and mostly "agile," we review each other's code and discuss problems. A few times a year we meet each other, either during dedicated sprints, at conferences or somehow else, which gives us a more high-bandwidth way to work on more difficult problems.
Bhushan, how popular is Plasma in India?
BS: While it is not super famous in India, we have quite a lot KDE users and developers in India. In some parts of India (north-east), Plasma is used as a daily driver in various government offices and universities, We also have developers working on various parts of KDE. So about popularity, I would say that it's getting there!
If you compare all desktop environments, what are the good points that your rivals do and that you think you should also focus on creating or improving?
SK: I enjoy visual consistency across desktops, and there are a couple of interesting approaches around, especially in terms of attention to visuals. What I think all Free desktop environments should do a better job at is interoperability, especially with Wayland about to land in GNOME and Plasma, there's a great need for common standards, but too little mutual collaboration.
And then, the other way around?
SK: Mutual collaboration, as it cuts on both ends of the sword.
Best Sherlock Holmes, quick.
BS: Robert Downey Jr.
DM: Kids these days. Sob. Sigh. Jeremy Brett all the way!
Seb, what does a typical day in life look for you?
SK: I get up in the late morning, pour a pint of cafe latte with frothed vanilla milk and start reading my emails and bug reports. When I feel woken up enough to communicate, I check out what's going on in our chat, catch up with colleagues, hold a meeting on IRC or video chat, do code reviews, merge patches and take care of all the organizational bits that keep the shop running. In the early evening, my partner joins me for dinner and I take a few hours off for private things. One some days, I go for a nightly scuba dive in a local lake with friends, other times I meet friends for dinner, or just spend a quiet evening with my partner at home. In the late evening I often pick up the laptop again, go over emails and work on things that need longer periods of focus, such as programming, debugging, or testing. This often continues into the wee hours. My job also includes quite some traveling, and even at home, no day is the same and there's something new and exciting to wrap your head around every day.
Bhushan, I know you're involved with KDE student programs. Could you please share more on this endeavor?
BS: KDE always welcomes new contributors and helps them get started. One way of making it easier for new contributors, we participate and host several mentoring programs, Google Summer of Code, Google Code-in, Season of KDE, and Outreach program for Women (Outreachy).
These mentoring programs have a duration of 3 to 4 months, during which existing KDE developers mentor the
participating students on various aspects of KDE development and participating students works on one specific
project. Out of them, Google code-in, is slightly different; it is targeted towards kids in the age group 13-17
studying in schools.
Coincidentally, I started developing on KDE as a student in one of these programs, Season of KDE 2013, and my mentor was Sebastian. During this timeline I did some porting work from Plasma 4 to Plasma 5.
Regardless of what you feel or think about KDE, you cannot deny its power and influence, nor the fact that there has been a huge stream of cool, wicked innovation come out of its forges. Plasma is the latest, bold initiative, and for a while, it was my favorite desktop. The ride has been a little rougher lately, but I am confident that we will see Plasma burgeon again. I would also love to see Plasma Mobile succeed where so many others have failed. Uprooting the giants will not be easy, but it is definitely an effort worth failing.
I would like to thank Sebastian and Bhushan for their time and patience, even if they did not delight me with the Sherlock Holmes response. It is quite fascinating learning more about what KDE has in store, where the development is focused, what the challenges are, and what we should expect to see from Plasma in the coming years. Privacy will definitely play a big part. And then, let us not forget, it's all about people, at the end of the day. I'm quite happy, and I'm looking forward to fresh new experiments with Plasma and friends. Meanwhile, have a look at the year's best of summary, and send me any ideas you may have for future interviews. See you soon, and if you like this, do tell a friend.