Desktop developers are starting to understand that netbooks need different interfaces than workstations -- or even notebooks. The smaller screens on netbooks are a usability challenge, comparable to designing a business card when youre used to creating full-page ads.
A case in point is KDE's Plasma Netbook interface, now available in a preview in Kubuntu 9.10. Scheduled for official release in January 2010 with KDE 4.4, the interface is still in development. But its advanced enough to show the developers struggling with the screen size limitation, sometimes overlooking it but at other times showing enough promise that the main KDE desktop could learn a thing or two from it.
Plasma Netbook appears incomplete in places, and crashes randomly, so it is emphatically not ready for daily use. However, if you are curious, you can download a DVD image on the Kubuntu download page by selecting Kubuntu Netbook Edition beneath the heading Which Release Do You Want?
The disk image produces a Live DVD, so you can explore Plasma Netbook without installing it.
Plasma Netbook starts much the same as any edition of KDE, with a splashscreen that gradually adds icons as features are loaded. As soon as the desktop appears, though, the differences become noticeable.
True, at first glance, the panel along the top looks much the same as in standard KDE. It includes a notification tray, calendar, device notifier, and the other widgets that you would expect to see. On the right side of the screen is a button that is the equivalent of the desktop tool kit (popularly known as "the cashew") in standard KDE.
But on second look, the differences loom large. No menu exists, and what looks like the taskbar, the context menu tells you, is actually an activity bar. In other words, instead of displaying applications, the activity bar lists what KDE developers call "containments" -- workspaces that define how widgets are arranged on the screen. The activity bar is a mechanism for switching between activities.
In the preview, Kubuntu has two pre-defined activities. The first, which is labeled either Applications or the Search and Locate Containment, is the one in which users will spend most of their time. It contains a menu bar containing top-level categories, such as Office, Graphics, and Games. Above it is an additional bar that displays open applications, starting with Install Kubuntu.
To find an application, you click a menu item to open an application. A sub-menu replaces the taskbar, as well as a Home menu in the top left corner that you can click to return to the top level of the task bar.
When you start an application, the window displays only with the sub-menu it came from. However, when at another sub-menu, you can click the icon for the application in the additional bar to open it there.
The second containment, entitled Newspaper, is a collection of widgets that you might like to see when you first log in: An RSS feed, a calendar, a weather report, a sticky note widget, and a comic strip viewer. Since the Newspaper only has spaces for five widgets, presumably you must close one of the existing ones before opening another, although doing so on the Live DVD consistently crashed the desktop for me.
Plasma Netbook's chief virtue is its simplicity. Although a so-called intuitive interface does not exist, Plasma Netbook should be straightforward enough that anyone who uses computers regularly should be able to navigate its desktop with only a few minor stumbles.