In an earlier post, I explained how we added graphics tablet pad support to libinput. Read that article first, otherwise this article here will be quite confusing.
A lot of tablet pads have mode-switching capabilities. Specifically, they have a set of LEDs and pressing one of the buttons cycles the LEDs. And software is expected to map the ring, strip or buttons to different functionality depending on the mode. A common configuration for a ring or strip would be to send scroll events in mode 1 but zoom in/out when in mode 2. On the Intuos Pro series tablets that mode switch button is the one in the center of the ring. On the Cintiq 21UX2 there are two sets of buttons, one left and one right and one mode toggle button each. The Cintiq 24HD is even more special, it has three separate buttons on each side to switch to a mode directly (rather than just cycling through the modes).
In the upcoming libinput 1.4 we will have mode switching support in libinput, though modes themselves have no real effect within libinput, it is merely extra information to be used by the caller. The important terms here are "mode" and "mode group". A mode is a logical set of button, strip and ring functions, as interpreted by the compositor or the client. How they are used is up to them as well. The Wacom control panels for OS X and Windows allow mode assignment only to the strip and rings while the buttons remain in the same mode at all times. We assign a mode to each button so a caller may provide differing functionality on each button. But that's optional, having a OS X/Windows-style configuration is easy, just ignore the button modes.
A mode group is a physical set of buttons, strips and rings that belong together. On most tablets there is only one mode group but tablets like the Cintiq 21UX2 and the 24HD have two independently controlled mode groups - one left and one right. That's all there is to mode groups, modes are a function of mode groups and can thus be independently handled. Each button, ring or strip belongs to exactly one mode group. And finally, libinput provides information about which button will toggle modes or whether a specific event has toggled the mode. Documentation and a starting point for which functions to look at is available in the libinput documentation.
Mode switching on Wacom tablets is actually software-controlled. The tablet relies on some daemon running to intercept button events and write to the right sysfs files to toggle the LEDs. In the past this was handled by e.g. a callout by gnome-settings-daemon. The first libinput draft implementation took over that functionality so we only have one process to handle the events. But there are a few issues with that approach. First, we need write access to the sysfs file that exposes the LED. Second, running multiple libinput instances would result in conflicts during LED access. Third, the sysfs interface is decidedly nonstandard and quite quirky to handle. And fourth, the most recent device, the Express Key Remote has hardware-controlled LEDs.
So instead we opted for a two-factor solution: the non-standard sysfs interface will be deprecated in favour of a proper kernel LED interface (/sys/class/leds/...) with the same contents as other LEDs. And second, the kernel will take over mode switching using LED triggers that are set up to cover the most common case - hitting a mode toggle button changes the mode. Benjamin Tissoires is currently working on those patches. Until then, libinput's backend implementation will just pretend that each tablet only has one mode group with a single mode. This allows us to get the rest of the userstack in place and then, once the kernel patches are in a released kernel, switch over to the right backend.