Ok, I'm a bit late to the party but last week I went to Berlin to learn about the latest Nextcloud version, called Hub 5; and, obviously as a KDE developer, I had the obvious question: hey, can we learn anything from them? So, I'll talk things like design, application, even the offices; as a bit of a spoiler, I managed to interview the CEO, and I even managed to make a trip to KDE official offices, for the first time, as well.
Let's get started right away talking about design. With Hub 5 Nextcloud is introducing some sort of "theme", or "design concept", called "Nextcloud Personal". Looking at it, it feels extremely similar to "Material You" concept by Google. It includes principles like focus on the content, ease of use, and so on; I don't quite see significant differences concretely in the design (which isn't bad: we have nice rounded corners and a blurry sidebar I appreciate a lot), but maybe it's a more long term thing.
In KDE... we don't quite have anything like that. Except maybe the obvious "simple by default, powerful when needed" there aren't great design principles that we follow; we have mockups that we use as a reference and we try to stay consistent. I do wonder if this "Nextcloud Persona" idea is more of a marketing term, or if it's something that we, as KDE, sholud kind-of aim for.
One concrete design element is that the accent color now can be set automatically based on the wallpaper; which again reminds me a lot of the "Material You" idea, and it's something that KDE also implements - beautifully, if I may add. So we're good on that.
One thing that is veery appealing: Hub 5 introduced a "design system", or I guess it could be called a toolkit; basically, they're sharing their penpot (basically, an alternative to Figma) materials so that everybody can mock up something using the "official" design, and it's going to be nice and consistent.
In KDE it's not quite like that. We do have some reference stuff on Figma (which is propertary, whereas Penpot is open source) but it's not much and most devs or designers don't use it (again, propertary). We would love to switch to Penpot but, sadly, it hasn't proven stable or powerful enough for us the past. Maybe now it's time to switch over? Food for thought. I'd love to copy Nextcloud here.
The next "big" focus of this release is collaboration between users; something that makes complete sense given Nextcloud intended usecases, and something that's way less important here at KDE. This collaboration aspect is seen in, as an example, the "Circle" feature; it's a set of users, who can ask to join certain circles, and when you're in you'e access to certain files (with certain permissions). This is, actually, something that I think KDE needs: but not in the desktop itself, but rather, in KDE's Nextcloud instance for developers. We do use Nextcloud, we have some sort of team structure, but it's very few teams and it's really confusing and you have to contact somebody specific to join them... it's a bit messy.
Then, we have files themselves; cool thing, there's a very powerful tag system. This is something that I would love to see in Dolphin as well; in theory we do have some sort of tag thingy, but I've personally found it to be quite buggy and, well, let me tell you about what Nextcloud is doing. It's not possible to create some automatic actions to run when you tag a file; these seem to be, uh, just a couple, but still (an example is, converting a file to PDF when you set a certain tag, or sharing files with a certain tag to a circle of people). You can also create rules to automatically add tags to certain files, which is pretty cool. Personally, I feel like sometimes a tag system with a nice search functionality is more effective than a folder system (yeah, I said it); so, it would be pretty cool to make our tagging system more powerful and automatic.
Still regarding files, there are a couple of things I want to praise Nextcloud for, even though it's nothing that we, KDE, would be interested in implementing. First up: you can share a file with a person, but disable the option to download that file; it will only be displayed with a watermark. This sounds pretty useful in some legal environments. Second up: if you start editing a file that's shared with other people with an application like, I don't know, Krita - which does not support editing the same file by multiple people at the same time - Nextcloud will automatically lock it to prevent other people working on it at the same time. That also sounds pretty useful in various contexts - even for me, I do use nextcloud, and I often work with Kdenlive locally; it would be a disaster if I were to work on a kdenlive file at the same time as my editor is.
We've talked file, let's talk talk. Nextcloud Talk is the application they use to manage calls between people, a bit like Google Meet, but it goes through your own server instead of Google's. It seems to me like the application is still playing catch up with other solutions, even open source like Jitsi, and this update seems to bring Picture In Picture (that is, you can get back to Nextcloud whilst on a call, and the video feed will stay in the bottom right part of the screen). This is not the only application implementing Picture In Picture lately; as an example, the big open source browser, Firefox, also implements it as a lil' window that you can drag around. And, even though it seems to be very much a "web" thing, this PIP feature, it sounds like it would be really useful on a desktop as well; say that you open a video, or a Mastodon client and you see a video, and want to have that video feed just floating around. Can you do that?
Kind-of, in KDE Plasma. There is a Kwin effect, whose name I forgot but I'll edit in later, which allows you to use a shortcut to draw any window slightly transparent on the bottom right of the screen. Even if you change the desktop, it's gonna stay there.
However, you cannot move it around, which feels like a bit of a dealbreaker; even worse, if you minimize the application, it's going to freeze, since it won't be painted anymore. So, not as appealing as could be. I'd love to see PIP as an actual feature, and with a button to toggle it on and off directly in the titlebar of any application. Agree / Disagree?
Let's get back to Nextcloud and switch to the Notes application, which is basically a .md file editor. KDE does have a couple of md file editors, such as Ghostwriter; what Nextcloud does is a nice What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get type of thing, which I haven't seen that much in KDE apps. What I'm particularly interested in, though, is the "smart picker" which was introduced in Hub 4 just a few months ago, and is now being improved. The idea is pretty simple: you press slash, and you get a context menu with various, uh, "kinds" of contents you can insert, of different "ways" to insert content: it could be an address (which you can select in open street map) or an image (through an imgur dialog, as an example) or normal text (but generated with AI, or even transcribed from audio, we'll get back to this), and so on. This kind of thing is useful basically anywhere: it's a list of ways to more easily insert text or images in any text field or input field. Because of that, we have this smart picker in lots of places in Nextcloud. We get something similar in other applications where you, uh, write, like Notion, or even Ghost.
Here's the thing. I see no reason why this should be a browser-only thing; quite the opposite, I think it would be extremely useful to have it in applications as well. However this only works if it's consistent, so it would have to be some sort of standard; and though, yeah, it's a bit of a long shot to think that something like this could be implemented at a desktop level... well, a man can dream, right?
By the way, Nextcloud notes application is now also available on Android. Which, uh, also beats KDE, which has no Android notes application (unless you consider MAUI ones). So, yeah, we should prooobably do that sooner or later.
Finally, we get into Groupware stuff. This includes mail and calendar, as an example, meaning that we can directly compare these to KDE offerings, like KMail or Kontact. Of course, that's only true up to a certain extent; take Nextcloud emails, as an example: you now have "email group folders", which allow managing a mailbox by more than just one user. There could be a "Sales" folder shared with a certain team or circle. This is clearly nothing that KMail or Kontact can offer; but take this: Nextcloud email client now allows you to unsubscribe from newsletters with just a click, directly from the client itself; and I don't see any reason why KDE's mail client couldn't have something like this.
Or, hear me out, according to the CEO there's also plans of having a "summary" feature that takes an email, or a thread, and just ... summarizes it for you. This is something that's starting to pop up in some email clients (the one I use, shortwave, actually has this feature) and I don't see any reason why we couldn't offer something similar; this does reaise concerns about privacy and AI, so let's talk risks of AI.
Actually, before we do that, as a bit of a side note, one of the things they announced is improvements to their own social, Nextcloud social, which optionally connects to ActivityPub (so, Mastodon and such). The little icon on the top bar for this application is a hearth, which at first made me think they were announcing a Nextcloud Dating application. But, I'm sure they have this feature ready for the next release, Hub 6.
Anyway, AI. The CEO seems to be aware of risks that are related to it, going from CO2 footprint, bias in the training material, and of course privacy; as a direct example, everytime I summarize one of my emails with Shortwave, it gets sent off to OpenAI, and I'm sure that Sam Altman is in his house reading my corrispondence all day long. Because of that, Nextcloud gives an "ethical" rating to each AI service, going from red to green. As an example, image generation, text generation through OpenAI, these are all red services; they still allow you to turn them on, if you want, but they do warn you that there's issues to them. To each "red" AI service, they also try to offer a more "green" alternative; as an example, we have StableDiffusion as the more ethical alternative to DALLE. Translation also has its own ethical solution, called "Nextcloud Translation System", which runs locally. There's text transcription through Whisper, which is yellow, beacuse the training data is not publicly available. And then of course we have text generation; we already have ChatGPT, which is obviously a "red" type of service, but what about a more ethical one? Well, they did announce that they will release, this year, a Nextcloud text model that you will be able to run locally. This way, none of your data gets sent to third party companies. Which is, huh, pretty interesting.
This brings me back to the title of the video: Nextcloud seems to be all-in when it comes to the latest developments of AI. Should KDE do the same? I mean, people are constantly asking us to "start using AI" otherwise we'll be "left out" or something, but of course we rarely see practical, actionable suggestions.
It's not very exciting, but we could make some use of AI in, as an example, managing bug reports; not to have, like, auto-answers, that'd be annoying, but it could be useful to have systems that maybe check for duplicates automatically in a "smart" way, or check if the component is correct, or if crash information is missing, this kind of things. We'd still need to send all bug reports text to OpenAI, but at least it's all public stuff anyway, so there's no big privacy concerns there. To be clear, this is not something anybody is actively working on, just an idea that I saw in the chat.
Ok, but what about AI integration in the desktop itself. Personally, I do see some places where it would make sense. My - let me repeat that - very personal idea is that we could feed something like ChatGPT the xml we use to save configs and a user request, and basically allow the users to ask - in a natural language - to change certain settings, like: "set the login wallpaper to the desktop one". That's maybe feasible, but has significant downsides: it requires an active internet connection, it costs money to use OpenAI APIs, and requires sending some data - not necessarily personal - to OpenAI. In this context, we very much need the same things that Nextcloud needs: an open source model that's able to run locally. It's not like having an open source model would mean that KDE would start using it, not at all actually, but it's the least we would need to even start a discussion about it.
I want to finish off this video with two last thing I'm, uuh, kind-of envious of Nextcloud... but that aren't technical at all. First one: offices. I've visited the Nextcloud offices, and they look like this; sure, Nextcloud actually has developers that they hire and they probably want a place where the employees work from, whereas KDE is more like... volounteers around the globe, but still, KDE has offices, or rather, an office. And I've visited it just the day after. It looks like this. I was super happy to be there, with all of KDE merch around the room and even an award for being the best desktop environment ever (not exactly a recent award, but still). Now, I'm not going to elaborate, because this won't make any sense if I do, but look at this... and then this... aaah, I don't know, I really like Nextcloud offices.
Secondly, I've seen Nextcloud prepare their announcement for Hub 5 whilst in Berlin, and they decided to rent a stage with high-tech cameras to record a nice announcement as we would expect from bigger tech companies. Personally, I really like this approach and I would like to see something like this on the KDE side of things as well; usually we just have some screen recordings of the new features, maybe 3D renderings, and just an article. It would be cool to use big events like Akademy, where we do have a big stage, to also perform announcements about the latest releases by KDE and then upload those. I think that would be pretty cool, that's all.