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A task manager for the Plasma Wayland session

Plasma 5.7 will ship with a new taskmanager library. One of the reasons to implement a new taskmanager library is the port to Wayland. Our old code base was heavily relying on X11 and didn’t support the concept of multiple windowing systems. You can read more on that in Eike’s blog post about the new task manager. In this blog post I want to focus a little bit on the Wayland side of a task manager.

Architectural difference to X11

On X11 every application is able to read every aspect of every other window. This allows to implement a task manager. The task manager can get notified when a window is added, when a window is removed and install event filters for the changes of the window properties. That’s the basics for a task manager.

On Wayland the world is different. An application is not able to see the windows of other applications. This means by default Plasma is not able to see what windows exists, the taskmanager would be empty. The only application which knows about the existing windows is the Wayland compositor.

Merging Desktop Shell and Wayland compositor?

A possible solution to this problem could be to merge the desktop shell and the compositor into one process. This is the architecture used in e.g. Unity and GNOME Shell on X11.

But such an architecture has also disadvantages. It violates the concept of separating concerns and of “doing one thing and do it right”. We have an excellent task manager, an excellent window manager and an excellent desktop shell.

Also it would make code sharing between platforms more difficult. A task manager for Wayland would be very different from a task manager on X11. All the business logic and presentation should be the same. No matter which windowing system is used.

By merging the code bases together we would also make the code less reusable. One couldn’t use KWin/Wayland in another desktop environment (e.g. LXQt) nor could one use Plasma/Wayland with another compositor (e.g. sway). While we of course recommend to use KWin as the Wayland (and X11) compositor we don’t enforce it and also don’t want to enforce it.

Protocols, protocols

So a different solution is needed and that is done through a custom Wayland protocol which is called org_kde_plasma_windowmanagement. We have a few interfaces prefixed with Plasma. This does not mean that it can only be used by Plasma. It just means that the interface was first designed and developed for Plasma’s needs. We are happy to share the interface with other desktop environments.

The protocol is provided by KWin and it announces whenever a new window gets created. Once a new window gets created a bound client can bind an org_kde_plasma_window interface and get notified about all the states of the window.

The protocol exposes pretty much all the information KWin has about the window and it gets updated automatically whenever the state in KWin changes. In addition the protocol has requests the task manager needs, like “close the window”, “minimize it”, “maximize it”, etc. etc. KWin also listens to these requests and honors them.

Although the protocol is added to Wayland, it is windowing system agnostic. The created Plasma Window does not expose the actual windowing system resource (after all on Wayland another client cannot get access to it). KWin exposes a Plasma Window for both X11 managed windows and Wayland windows. By that the task manager is able to manage tasks from multiple windowing systems without knowing that it does so.

Evolution of the protocol

We added the Plasma window protocol initially for the work on the Plasma phone about a year ago. Also on the Plasma phone we had the use case of switching windows and using the X11 based task manager was just no option on a Wayland only device 😉

While the protocol worked fine for our initial needs, it was not yet sufficient for the use in the desktop task manager. So over the last weeks we introduced further support and improved the API to make it work more reliable. Also quite some changes went into KWin to ensure that only “interesting” windows are exposed. E.g. a context menu should not be shown in the task manager.

Our KWayland library of course has support for this protocol through the classes PlasmaWindowManagement and PlasmaWindow on client side. In addition there is a model exposed as PlasmaWindowModel .

Future work

The work on the interface is not done yet. There are still changes to the API needed and the upcoming KDE Frameworks 5.23 release will include new API calls in PlasmaWindow. As well we have already the first change scheduled for KDE Frameworks 5.24. And we also know that we need to expose a few more data elements in the protocol to get the task manager to the same level as on X11.

There is also an interesting idea floating around to use the – windowing system agnostic – Wayland implementation on both X11 and Wayland. For this KWin (on X11) would need to create a dummy Wayland server for the task manager to connect to. It’s an idea which we might or might not implement.

Security considerations

Currently every Wayland client is able to bind this interface, which means that some of the security improvements of Wayland are not available in Plasma/Wayland. We are fully aware of that and were also fully aware of the consequence when we added the interface. I do have ideas on how to address this and this will be implemented before we will recommend the Plasma/Wayland session for daily usage. The design allows to add security checks in these areas. Unfortunately my priority list did not allow me to implement this for Plasma 5.7, next chance 5.8.

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