Q&A: Jonathan Riddell on the release of KDE neon User Edition 5.6

KDE neon is a project that Jonathan Riddell started after quitting Kubuntu. In this Q&A, he talks about the new release and the challenges he has overcome since launching the project.

neon swapnil
Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

The primary goal of neon is to offer the latest Plasma experience to users in a distro form. KDE neon User Edition 5.6 is based on the latest version of Plasma 5.6 and aims to showcase the latest KDE technology on a stable foundation.

It is a continuously updated installable image that can be used not just for exploration and testing but as the main operating system for people enthusiastic about the latest desktop software.

I talked to Riddell to know more about this release and the state of other KDE projects.

Can you point out some of the major highlights of this release?

I’m thrilled to be part of the first project to bring KDE’s flagship desktop software to our users direct from the KDE community. We had to fill in a few gaps in what Plasma offers its users to complete the experience but we did that by working in Plasma rather than doing our work separately.  So we added bootup themes for Grub and Plymouth and we’ve worked to make sure the app store, Discover, covers the whole archive. But the most important feature is what Neon is intended to be, a Plasma 5.6 desktop as the developers intended it.

What’s the statues of the KDE app store?

Plasma Discover has had a lot of work to get all the features we have come to expect from an app store plus a few more.  It has a pretty user interface and can install packages from your Apt archives but also other sources such as themes from kde-look.org or Plasma Widgets from kde-apps.org.  The version in Plasma 5.7, coming out next month, contains a lot of these new features, read about them on Aleix Pol’s blog.

What apps come pre-installed?

KDE’s Visual Design Group picked a wee selection of the applications that work best with Plasma.  We have Firefox for Web browsing, Dolphin for file browsing, VLC for videos, KDE Connect for integration with your mobile phone, plus a few utilities for compressed files, text editing and command line use.  We’ll add a PDF reader once there is one that fits in, we’re waiting on the Qt 5 port of Okular for that.  That’s all, we trust the user to install whatever they want after that.

I heard that you are taking a DevOps approach towards cloud infrastructure. You are using Jenkins and Docker?

Yes, it’s pleasingly easy to create a build farm without too many resources these days.  Our cloud servers work hard to compile KDE software as soon as there are changes. If you’re a fan of KDE or interested in our work then neon is the best way to try it out.

What’s the basic difference between developer and user editions of neon?

When KDE software is being developed the code gets saved into Git repositories and the developer editions of KDE neon build packages directly from these repositories.  It may not have been tested by anyone other than the developer so it might contain bugs or other surprises so we don’t recommend it for most people, but if you’re wanting to help KDE by testing KDE neon it is by far the easiest way to test our in-development software.

Once the developers are happy with the code we release it as source tars.  In my previous experience there would then be a lot of manual work to update the packages of a distro to use that new release.  In KDE neon our servers are continuously scanning for a new release and when it notices one it starts the build straight away so it should be available to users within a few hours.  The User Edition uses this released software so it is of a known quality, but you will get updates to the latest releases as soon as possible.

What has been the biggest challenge for you and neon after switching from Canonical infrastructure?

Phew, the politics was nasty, every effort was made to make me feel bad for asking basic questions about taking money and breaking licences.  It’s such a shame but the best thing to do is work with people who respect their users and I can’t think of anyone better than the people who make the software in the first place, KDE.

We had some tricky technical issues like getting images booting on UEFI (replacement for BIOS firmware) and some bits of software we depend on such as software-properties have bugs and seem to be unmaintained so we had to fork a few of them rather than patch upstream, which is a shame.  But after a few months of polishing the setup we’re happy to say it’s usable by our target audience:

  • Someone who relishes frequent updates of features
  • Someone who cares what software is on their desktop and is a fan or curious about KDE software

And we’ll start adding all KDE software to be built in the neon archives now.

What’s the status of neon on HiDPI?

KDE neon is just a compilation of KDE’s software so issues like this are best directed to the Plasma maintainers.  They’ve done a lot of work to add HiDPI support, but much of it is work done at the Qt level.  So if there’s issues then do ask there, I recommend testing with a KDE neon Developer Edition unstable branch image first as that way you are sure to be running the latest.

Will Neon always remain Ubuntu base or will it be available for other distros as well?

It’s the first project to bring KDE software directly to Linux users; that’s a large change in how free software works, which should offer a new and more efficient way to use our output. I think that’s really exciting and I expect others to follow our lead.

We plan to stay on an Ubuntu foundation. It’s good technology that serves the purpose well.  But I expect KDE will get into containerized applications soon enough, probably using Flatpak, so our software can be used directly on any Linux distro. That might be part of KDE neon or a whole new project in KDE. For now I’m excited to be getting this up and running.

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