August 26, 2004

Report from the KDE World Summit: Days four and five

Author: Tom Chance

Writing about aKademy can begin to feel a little
like writing a soap opera guide without the romance (so far). To save your
patience, this report from the first two days of the coding marathon will focus largely on the scheduled
content, and in particular on developments in accessibility, usability and local
KDE groups. The coding marathon lasts for five days, in between the developer
conference and the user conference, and allows the project's hackers to work
solidly for just under a week under the same roof, and spend time discussing and
working on practical issues. Alongside the marathon, a series of tutorials are being run by some of the top
hackers and professionals in their fields.First on the schedule was the accessibility forum, bringing together the KDE Accessibility
(KAP), the GNOME Accessibility Project, the Free Standards Group (FSG)
Accessibility Workgroup, IBM, Novell/SUSE, the See_by Touch Project , and Trolltech. Building on the themes and discussions from the
accessibility presentations of the previous day, Janina Sajka, Chair of the FSG
Accessibility Workgroup, talked of strategies that hackers can employ to improve
Unix accessibility. Whilst the command line environment is already accessible,
the bootup sequence and the GUI are still far from being feature complete in
this regard; both the technology built into the toolkits and APIs as well as the
design philosophy of the GUIs themselves should be addressed.

Once developers had learned of general strategies, and an example of bringing
images to the blind from the See_by Touch Project was explained, developers from
Gnopernicus stepped up to tell KDE
developers about one of GNOME's most important accessibility efforts. Whilst KDE
already features a range of applications including Kmouth, KMag and KMouseTool,
it currently lacks what Gnopernicus offers -- a comprehensive assistive
technology architecture for blind and visually impaired users. KDE will now work
together with GNOME and Gnopernicus to deliver a completely accessible
environment across the free software desktop.

According to Olaf Schmidt of the KAP, Qt will be able to fully integrate with
these assistive technologies. GNOME Onscreen Keyboard (GOK), the subject of
another presentation, will also integrate well with KMouth. Everyone attending
the forum was keen to see more cooperation and coordination between the major
free software projects, nobody more so than Janina, who is now putting
considerable energy into promoting free software and open standards as "the"
solution to accessibility on computers. With proprietary solutions often costing
hundreds of (American) dollars, there is an obvious need for a platform that is completely open and allows
hackers and groups representing those with accessibility issues to solve their
problems as a community effort, driven by a desire to provide a useful free
solution rather than purely a concern for profitability.

On Tuesday, the usability forum began. That usability followed accessibility was
no accident, as many of the speakers and members of the audience pointed out. A
usable desktop is, with the appropriate assistive technology, accessible by
definition, and vice versa. Jan Muehlig of relevantive AG first spoke about the importance of usability to
free software, something that any user could tell you, but a message that was
worth reinforcing and laying out before Aaron Seigo proposed a revisioning of
usability in free software. According to Aaron, usability discussions within the
KDE Project have so far focused on micro-usability issues such as the placement
of GUI widgets, icon design and phrasing of text in the GUI. But to properly
address usability, he proposed that KDE also focus on what he described as
"macro-usability issues," which ask fundamental questions; in the end, he believes, the user should cease to be conscious of the interface as it "melts
into the background".

But presentations and discussions weren't sufficient. Relantive AG brought some
unsuspecting users to the front of the room and allowed developers to watch as
the users attempted to navigate their software. Kontact was tested, as KDE PIM
developers began to laugh and then sink into their seats, seeing for themselves
just how many mistakes a developer can make based on false assumptions. If
Aaron's point wasn't yet digested, these demonstrations force-fed the message.
Though Kontact was largely usable, there were plenty of changes that the
developers noted and began to fix or discuss almost immediately.

Cooperation between KDE on the one hand and Relantive AG and other professional
usability outfits on the other should now be on the increase, with the
University of London expressing interest. Contrary to the common assumption, the
usability experts present indicated that they actually prefer to work with free
software projects, given the short release cycles and direct contact. will be an area to watch in the
future, not only for KDE and GNOME , but for other desktop projects.

In parallel with these forums were tutorials on Knoppix, Samba, Quanta+,
and OpenLDAP. Attendees paid to hear from Klaus Knopper (Knoppix), John H.
Terpstra (Samba team member) and Eric Laffoon & Andras Mantia (Quanta
Developers), and spent a whole day (9am - 5pm) learning the subjects thoroughly.
Klaus Knopper's tutorial coincided with the release of Knoppix 3.6 'aKademy
, which saw some last minute bugfixes
moments before the tutorial began, with the latest ISOs distributed from servers here in
the Filmakademie.

The Quanta+ tutorial marked a watershed in the status of this relatively young
application. Developed originally as a simple Dreamweaver clone, Laffoon and his
development team (including two developers that he pays himself) now have big
plans to take on and completely outpace their proprietary competitors. Modelling
the application around modern web site frameworks, Quanta+ will be positioned to
allow Webmasters to develop and manage their web site holistically, thinking of
it as a collection of data objects rather than as static HTML with a weak
templating system. Laffoon believes that whilst many focus on the office as a
tipping market (one which, when won over, tips the balance of power in the whole
IT marketplace in our favour), the web development market has more potential,
given that the competitors are both young (less than ten years old) and stagnant
in terms of their innovation (preferring to refine existing products and concepts).

Eric may be right, and if KDE can deliver an integrated, usable, accessible
desktop with some killer applications, which the forums and tutorials suggested
they can, the future of personal computing will feature more KDE -- and fewer proprietary applications.

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