For the last decade, the mobile market has been under complete lockdown. Unless you were Android or iOS, you didn’t stand a chance at making much of a run at success. Canonical failed miserably with the Ubuntu Phone. Blackberry had to resort to their own take on Android. Firefox OS couldn’t even get off the ground.
And yet, thanks to the Purism Librem 5, there’s another attempt at creating an open source mobile platform on the horizon. Many of us prognosticators and pundits have been ansty to see what’s to come for this platform, and finally someone has made some headway, and that’s KDE. The platform is Plasma Mobile. From the looks of it, KDE is on to something.
I’m going to preface this by saying I worked with Plasma Mobile on a VirtualBox VM—which is obviously not the target environment. Couple that with the fact this is a very early release and you have one unstable operating system.
However unstable Plasma Mobile may be at the moment, it offers a glimpse into what is in store for the platform, and it’s pretty impressive. Where Canonical attempted and failed miserably to complete reinvent the wheel, Plasma Mobile uses what KDE does best and reworks it into a metaphor that functions very well for the mobile space. Of course, by «functions very well» I can only assume that it’s not very useful at the moment.
How to test
KDE released the first-ever ISO image of Plasma Mobile. You can download the image here, and then create a standard virtual machine. I will say, after a quick IRC conversation, the developers warned me VirtualBox is not the best environment to use for this image (due to Wayland issues). To get the most out of the image, it’s best to use QEMU/KVM. Since VirtualBox is my VM tool of choice, I’m going to stick with that and offer up a cursory glance at what Plasma Mobile has to offer. What I saw was enough to tell me that the KDE development team has created something that could seriously make some noise in the mobile landscape.
I will add that installing the ISO image onto a dedicated laptop offered a much better experience, although still far from ready for prime time.
Let’s take a look.
The Plasma Mobile desktop
What KDE has done is reform the Plasma Desktop into an edition that would function well on smaller, touch-centric hardware. They offer a simple homescreen (Figure A), that offers a notification shade, a straightforward dock, and quick access to an app drawer.
Swipe up or, if you’re running Plasma Mobile in a virtual machine, scroll down, to reveal the app drawer. (Figure B—I have no idea what the official name of this feature is yet).
As you might expect, within the app drawer, you have access to all the installed applications, which isn’t many at the moment. Should you not find what you want, click on the Discover app and install an app from the standard repositories.
What’s to like?
There’s a lot here to like. First and foremost, this is a Linux platform, not Android running on top of a Linux kernel. Plasma Mobile allows for you to install full-blown desktop applications. For anyone in need of getting serious work done, when a mobile device is the only option, Plasma Mobile could wind up being the ideal solution. If you’re a developer on the go, you’d have everything you need.
Second, the KDE team has done an outstanding job of migrating KDE to a mobile interface. It works very well outside of the usual alpha-release hurdles. Getting to and starting applications is seamless. The pull-down notification shade (Figure C) gives you quick access to everything you need, and applications, when they do run, work exactly as you would expect. What we have here is exponentially better than Ubuntu Scopes (which, I believe, was the primary reason the Ubuntu Phone was never going to succeed).
What’s most impressive about Plasma Mobile, however, is the simple fact that the developers have managed to take a Linux desktop, reframe it around mobile hardware, and make it work quite well. That’s a feat of note, one that hasn’t seen much success to date. There is absolutely no question that this interface will be as user-friendly as those found on either Android or iOS.
What’s not to like?
This section should be listed with a huge asterisk. Why? Because the not to like are all brought about by two issues:
- Plasma Mobile is very much an alpha-level product
- My testing was done on either a laptop or virtual machine (neither of which are the target platforms)
That being said, Plasma Mobile has a very long way to go before it’s ready. Applications either don’t run, or do run and then crash the desktop (which, again, is a product of running a Wayland platform on VirtualBox). I was also never able to get the installer Calamares to successfully run, so I was always testing from a live instance of the platform. Launching Calamares on either a VM or on dedicated hardware did nothing more then spin its wheels.
This could be something special
Having much else to say about Plasma Mobile is challenging, as it’s nearly impossible to truly kick the tires without it being on the necessary target hardware. Even so, getting a glimpse into what the developers are doing, in preparation for the Librem 5, is a sight to behold. Major kudos to the KDE team. If the Librem 5 does make it to final production, and Plasma Mobile is either the default or easily installed, this could be something special. We are long overdue for a complete desktop operating system on mobile hardware. If that OS happens to be Plasma Mobile, we’ll certainly have a winner on our hands.