Nine Ways to Make KDE Activities More Useful

Tuesday Jul 3rd 2012 by Bruce Byfield

With a few small improvements, KDE Activities would be recognized as the innovative tool it is.

Activities are the defining feature of the KDE 4 release series. Super-charged virtual workspaces, each of which can also contain its own virtual workspaces, Activities are by far the easiest way to increase the available desktop space, and to work with a task-oriented rather than an application-oriented approach.

Yet, despite their potential, Activities remain poorly understood. Part of the problem is a lack of explanations, or use-cases. Another part is a lack of easy-to-use tools.

As a result, even those who have discovered Activities on their own take longer than necessary to make full use of them. Many users fail to see the point in them, and either stick with virtual workspaces alone, or choose more costly and complex solutions such as multiple monitors.

To be fair, improvements have been made since the first KDE 4 releases. The current KDE 4.9 release candidate, for example, cleans up the configuration display for Activities. It also allows files and windows to be set to open in selected Activities, which reduces desktop clutter and helps to assure that the specialized widgets need for a particular app are always available.

But although such changes are welcome, they're coming too slowly. At this rate, it will be KDE 4.19 before Activities are what they should be. Here is my wish list of improvements that would help Activities to come into their own:

1. Clarify Relation Between Activities and Virtual WorkSpaces

You can easily state the relationship between Activities and virtual workspaces. When used as intended by the developers, Activities are organized by tasks, and use virtual workspaces to organize the work of the moment.

However, the desktop itself fails to make the relationship clear. There is neither a pager nor any task manager setting that shows virtual workspaces as subordinate to Activities. Instead, virtual work spaces have their own pagers, and Activities are only displayed when you select Activities from the desktop toolkit.

This arrangement is convenient for those who only want to use virtual workspaces. However, it makes Activities easy to ignore and -- because they are harder to access -- makes them seem redundant to the uninitiated.

Moreover, it makes switching to a particular workspace of a particular Activity harder than it should be when the workspace has no open windows. First, you need to switch to the Activity using one set of tools, then to the work space using another set of tools. There is no way to switch to the work space directly.

2. An Efficient Display / Switcher

Throughout the KDE 4 release series, developers have struggled with the best way to display Activities. For the first few releases, the choice was an overview similar to GNOME 3's. For the last few releases, the choice has been a horizontal scrolling window that is stuck in position at the bottom of the screen. An Activity Bar widget is available, but remains strangely slow to respond to mouse-clicks.

The most successful switcher I have seen for Activities is the spinner rack in Plasma Active, the KDE desktop environment for tablets and other mobile devices. Unobtrusive yet easy to access, it is such an improvement over the other displays that you have to wonder why it hasn't been generally implemented throughout KDE.

3. Improved Template Organization

When you add an Activity, you have the option of basing it on a Template. The trouble is, nothing explains the features of the available templates. Most users can only guess what a Grid or Grouping Desktop might be, or what Newspaper Layout might be without trying them first. More likely, users will choose the safer-sounding Empty Desktop, and never learn the possibilities of the templates.

Nor does the desktop include any utility for creating your own templates. The most you can do is clone the current Activity.

Should you want only a particular feature of another template, how do you add it? In particular, if you notice that the Desktop icon template allows you to set applications to run when you switch to the Activity, how do you duplicate that feature on a different template? How do you change the applications to run?

For that matter, how do you use the existing dialog for adding the applications to run? I don't know about anyone else, but I'm still unable to use it (and the problem isn't that I haven't tried)

Such problems make Activities far harder to customize than they should be -- which weakens one of the main points of using Activities in the first place.

4. A Customizable Default Activity

When you log into KDE, the desktop opens on the last Activity you were using. Short of changing to the desktop you would like to log in with next time at the end of every session, there is no way to set the default Activity.

5. Specialized Icon Sets

Users can add a custom icon to an Activity to make it more immediately recognizable. Yet, so far, no one has developed an icon set specifically for Activities. Instead, you have to customize with the same selection that is available for desktop launchers, and use your own ingenuity.

For example, you could use the icon for the digiKam photo manager for an Activities called Graphics, or the icon for KPat for an Activities called Games. Very likely, though, you will have to scroll through dozens of icons to find a suitable choice. Why not have a filter of several dozen general purpose icons, representing common activities?

6. Multiple Desktop Directories

Desktop icons are one of the most basic templates for Activities. Presumably, the template is intended for those who want to maintain different sets of icons for different tasks.

The problem is, KDE itself recognizes only one Desktop folder. While you can easily create a separate folder for the icons used by a particular Activity, all the icons will have a .desktop extension added to them. Although the extension doesn't interfere with the purpose, it's unnecessary and annoying.

7. Associate with Networks and Remote Desktops

The last time I wrote about Activities, one commenter suggested that you should be able to associate Activities with networks and remote desktops.

Personally, I would only want to use these associations with strong visual clues like different wallpapers that would remind me of what I was looking at. But, otherwise, the suggestion seems a natural one.

8. Completely Independent Desktop Settings

Another comment from the last time I covered Activities was that they didn't go far enough in their independence. Yes, you can change the background wallpaper and the launchers (if any) for each Activity.

But why stop there? Why shouldn't each Activity be able to have its own customized panels? Or maybe on one Activity where you do serious work, you don't want to be distracted by having notifications display. On another Activity, you might want an extra panel because you always have a lot of windows open. Activities have already moved a long way from the single desktop metaphor, so why not take them to their logical conclusion?

9. Add Activities to System Settings

Unlike virtual workspaces, Activities are configured in the horizontally scrolling window that is also used to move between them. This is a cramped space, with small icons that are easy to miss unless you are careful.

Moving Activities to System Setting would make the existing settings easier to change. The move would also give more space for options, so that you could, for example, set up five Activities at once, naming them and adjusting the number of virtual workspaces for each in a matter of seconds, rather than handcrafting each Activity separately as now.

In addition, the move would make Activities easier to find -- which might just people more likely to use them. As things are, Activities remains an afterthought on the desktop that is too easy to overlook.

Mostly There

Probably, someone is likely to suggest that, if I want such improvements, I should code them myself. However, I make no claim to coding skills, while I do have some background in testing and usability. Just as importantly, I have enough familiarity with Activities to understand how useful they are, and how much more useful they could become.

At any rate, many of the changes I've suggested are either minimal or a matter of organization rather than writing completely new code. It seems to me that KDE's Activities are about eighty-five percent of what they should be, and that relatively little effort would be needed by those who know them best to improve them out of all recognition.

A few improvements, and KDE's Activities could finally be seen for the innovations that they are, instead of being a curio at the edge of most users' awareness.

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