Click here to close now.

Welcome!

Linux Authors: Pat Romanski, Elizabeth White, Jason Bloomberg, Srinivasan Sundara Rajan, Jacob Olcott

Related Topics: Linux

Linux: Article

Window-managers 101: The desktop beyond GNOME and KDE

Plus, a backgrounder on X Window System

(LinuxWorld) -- Many of my most recent columns have speculated exclusively on GNOME and KDE as if they're the only realistic choices for Linux or UNIX desktops. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are dozens of window managers available for X11, which is the most common foundation for graphical applications on UNIX.

If you're already familiar with X11, the concept of window managers and the most common window managers, skip on ahead to the next section entitled "The obscure and the arcane." If it's new to you, here's a layman's approximate description of how this all works together.

X11 is a network-enabled client/server graphics engine. If you use Linux, you're likely to be using the XFree86 version of X11R6.

The concept of X11 is simple, although the way X11 defines client and server are counterintuitive to the average user. An X11 server does little more than paint graphics on the screen and accept input from devices like a mouse or keyboard. You run an X11 server on the machine you are using to do work, which is the computer you normally think of as your client machine. The X11 server runs on your client. Remember that.

The X11 definition of client is an application, such as a word processor. The magic of X11 is that you can run this client application on your local machine, on any of the servers in your company, on the computer in the cubicle next to you or on a computer thousands of miles away. All other things being equal, you won't be able to tell the difference no matter where this application runs.

To recap: the X11 client application does all the useful work, like formatting paragraphs, spell-checking, etc. The X11 server running on your local computer simply serves up graphics and keyboard-input functions to that client.

X11 stops there. Outside of what I've described above, X11 is remarkably free of any end-user features. For example, it doesn't provide a way to move, resize or otherwise arrange application windows. You need to add what's called a window manager to get these features.

Are GNOME and KDE window managers? No. They include window managers, but they themselves are not window managers. GNOME uses a window manager named Sawfish (formerly called Sawmill) by default, and you can swap Sawfish with other window managers and still use GNOME. I used to prefer a window manager called Icewm for use with GNOME. KDE uses a window manager called kwin by default. It is less common to swap kwin with other window managers for use with KDE, but it is certainly possible.

GNOME and KDE provide many of the usability enhancements that window-managers lack. For example, they provide launch panels, taskbars and other graphics components as separate entities. But even these features aren't the most important ones you get with GNOME and KDE. The most promising features in GNOME and KDE have to do with the network object models they support. One uses these as part of an application framework to build sophisticated applications that should integrate and interoperate well with each other and the desktop.

If you didn't know about anything discussed above and all you care about is using your word processor, MPEG player and other favorite applications, then you should probably pick either GNOME or KDE and stick with it. These are the easiest graphical environments to configure and use, and that's all you probably care about.

The obscure & the arcane

As for the rest of you, if you already know how X11 and window managers work, then you are undoubtedly already familiar with the most popular and commonly installed alternative windowing environments to GNOME and KDE. These generally include WindowMaker, Icewm, Enlightenment, Fvwm, Twm and perhaps a few others. I won't bore you with an overview of those.

You may not be as familiar with some other experimental and minimalist window managers, however. Here's how to tell if you should try any of them. It's my standard geek test, so you may already be familiar with it: Just count to three.

Go ahead, count.

If you counted "1...2...3," then you probably shouldn't bother with any of the window managers I'm about to mention. If you counted "0...1...2," then you've got enough geek in your blood to give these a try. Read on.

Blackbox

Outside of Sawfish, Blackbox is perhaps the most sophisticated of the minimalist window managers. It's the one you most likely know about even if you're only part geek. Blackbox is an all-new window manager written in C++, and it is an enormously attractive choice because it's pretty, fast and uses remarkably few resources. If you're only part geek, and you like Windows 9x, then go for Icewm. If you're only part geek, and you don't like Windows 9x, then go for Blackbox.

Blackbox's minimalist approach to the taskbar and virtual desktops take some getting used to, but there are a few add-on utilities that will help you make the transition from one of the other window managers (such as Fvwm) to Blackbox. I suggest you look into bbrun, bbkeys and bbpager:

  • bbrun lets you pop up a dialog to launch programs as you would from a command line.
  • bbkeys lets you redefine keystrokes to perform functions like "switch to the next desktop."
  • bbpager adds a traditionally styled virtual desktop pager that gives you an easier way to jump from virtual desktop to virtual desktop than Blackbox's default method.

Sawfish

I know I mentioned Sawfish as part of GNOME, but you can also use this window manager without GNOME. I happen to like Sawfish, but not enough to use it by itself. This is due, in part, to the fact that the design choices behind Sawfish are enigmatic to me.

Sawfish has two distinguishing features:

  • First, it lets you assign different themes to different windows. This means you can make the window title bar for your word processor different than the window title bar for your browser. If you're anything like me, I know what you're thinking. The only thing more mysterious to me than why the authors included this feature is why anyone would want to use it. Each to his or her own, I guess.
  • Second, you can extend Sawfish by using a language called lisp. Lisp is a favorite language for users of the editor GNU/emacs, which uses elisp as a scripting language for extensibility.

It is possible that lisp fans will like both Sawfish and emacs, and this assumption presents another interesting enigma. If you know anything about emacs, you know that people have extended it to do just about everything imaginable. You can use emacs to browse Web sites, play games, read and respond to e-mail, visit newsgroups and more. If you use emacs for all these things, then why would you need a window manager at all? You'd only need one window on the screen: emacs.

larswm

Larswm used to be one of my favorites among the extreme minimalist window managers. When I first tried it, it automatically tiled all the windows you open. The active application always took up most of the screen, and the rest of your open applications were automatically tiled in a vertical stack on the right of the screen. I love this behavior because it's much easier to see the work you're doing in various applications than if you minimize inactive applications to taskbar/icons or assign them to other virtual desktops.

This approach wasn't without its problems, however. For one thing, the default behavior of the old larswm could be pretty annoying whenever your application popped up a dialog box. This dialog box usually switched itself to be the active application, which means it expanded to fill the active portion of the screen and assigned your main window to the tiled stack on the right.

Over the past few years, the author(s) of larswm has addressed this and many other issues, but the solution seems worse than the problems to me. You can now customize the behavior of windows, keys and applications so that some applications will appear at predefined sizes and desktop locations, others will automatically tile, dialogs will not expand automatically and so on.

Forcing applications that were designed for traditional window environments to work in an auto-tiling environment solves one problem, but the last time I tried larswm, its default behavior wasn't anything I liked. I looked into what it would take to make it work the way it used to and solve the annoying problems. I concluded that I'd have to invest hours of testing and editing configuration files to get to my goal. That was simply too great a price to pay, so I gave up. If you've got time to twiddle, though, look into larswm.

pwm and fluxbox

Aside from larswm, the most inventive window managers I've seen so far are pwm and fluxbox. They're not based on the same code, but they share one great feature in common: they let you combine multiple applications into a single tabbed window. You can switch between the applications by clicking on the appropriate tabs. Think of it the same way you can select between open browser windows in Mozilla, Opera and Galeon (and coming soon to Konqueror). You may be more familiar with the same tabbed-selection feature in KDE's terminal application Konsole or GNOME's terminal application multi-gnome-terminal.

Pwm and fluxbox extend this capability to unrelated windows. This means you can connect an X11 terminal to a Mozilla browser and a word processor in a single-tabbed window and switch between them using the tabs. It's purely a personal preference, but I believe this is the most efficient use of screen space possible. It's also more convenient than virtual desktops as a way to switch between applications without having them create clutter or compete for screen space.

So which should you try? Both. If you like the look and feel of Blackbox, then be sure to give fluxbox a try. It is based on the Blackbox code and has basically the same elegant look.

Summary

There are countless other window managers out there. Some have so few features they're practically useless, while others have innovative approaches to window management like pwm, fluxbox and larswm. I featured the ones I feel are the most interesting, but if you are inclined to try more, search Freshmeat or another software index and you may be surprised at the variety of ideas and implementations of window managers you can find.

More Stories By Nicholas Petreley

Nicholas Petreley is a computer consultant and author in Asheville, NC.

Comments (0)

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.


@ThingsExpo Stories
SYS-CON Events announced today that BroadSoft, the leading global provider of Unified Communications and Collaboration (UCC) services to operators worldwide, has been named “Gold Sponsor” of SYS-CON's WebRTC Summit, which will take place on June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. BroadSoft is the leading provider of software and services that enable mobile, fixed-line and cable service providers to offer Unified Communications over their Internet Protocol networks. The Company’s core communications platform enables the delivery of a range of enterprise and consumer calling...
VoxImplant has announced full WebRTC support in the newest versions of its Android SDK and iOS SDK. The updated SDKs, which enable audio and video calls on mobile devices, are now compatible with the WebRTC standard to allow any mobile app to communicate with WebRTC-enabled browsers, including Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Opera, and, when available, Microsoft Spartan. The WebRTC-updated SDKs represent VoxImplant's continued leadership in simplifying the development of real-time communications (RTC) services for app developers. VoxImplant (built by Zingaya, the real-time communication servi...
SYS-CON Events announced today that GENBAND, a leading developer of real time communications software solutions, has been named “Silver Sponsor” of SYS-CON's WebRTC Summit, which will take place on June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. The GENBAND team will be on hand to demonstrate their newest product, Kandy. Kandy is a communications Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) that enables companies to seamlessly integrate more human communications into their Web and mobile applications - creating more engaging experiences for their customers and boosting collaboration and productiv...
The IoT Bootcamp is coming to Cloud Expo | @ThingsExpo on June 9-10 at the Javits Center in New York. Instructor. Registration is now available at http://iotbootcamp.sys-con.com/ Instructor Janakiram MSV previously taught the famously successful Multi-Cloud Bootcamp at Cloud Expo | @ThingsExpo in November in Santa Clara. Now he is expanding the focus to Janakiram is the founder and CTO of Get Cloud Ready Consulting, a niche Cloud Migration and Cloud Operations firm that recently got acquired by Aditi Technologies. He is a Microsoft Regional Director for Hyderabad, India, and one of the f...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Optimal Design, an Internet of Things solution provider, will exhibit at SYS-CON's Internet of @ThingsExpo, which will take place on June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Optimal Design is an award winning product development firm offering industrial design and engineering services to the consumer, medical, and defense markets.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Vicom Computer Services, Inc., a provider of technology and service solutions, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 16th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. They are located at booth #427. Vicom Computer Services, Inc. is a progressive leader in the technology industry for over 30 years. Headquartered in the NY Metropolitan area. Vicom provides products and services based on today’s requirements around Unified Networks, Cloud Computing strategies, Virtualization around Software defined Data Ce...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Ciqada will exhibit at SYS-CON's @ThingsExpo, which will take place on June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Ciqada™ makes it easy to connect your products to the Internet. By integrating key components - hardware, servers, dashboards, and mobile apps - into an easy-to-use, configurable system, your products can quickly and securely join the internet of things. With remote monitoring, control, and alert messaging capability, you will meet your customers' needs of tomorrow - today! Ciqada. Let your products take flight. For more inform...
What exactly is a cognitive application? In her session at 16th Cloud Expo, Ashley Hathaway, Product Manager at IBM Watson, will look at the services being offered by the IBM Watson Developer Cloud and what that means for developers and Big Data. She'll explore how IBM Watson and its partnerships will continue to grow and help define what it means to be a cognitive service, as well as take a look at the offerings on Bluemix. She will also check out how Watson and the Alchemy API team up to offer disruptive APIs to developers.
The 17th International Cloud Expo has announced that its Call for Papers is open. 17th International Cloud Expo, to be held November 3-5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, brings together Cloud Computing, APM, APIs, Microservices, Security, Big Data, Internet of Things, DevOps and WebRTC to one location. With cloud computing driving a higher percentage of enterprise IT budgets every year, it becomes increasingly important to plant your flag in this fast-expanding business opportunity. Submit your speaking proposal today!
With IoT exploding, massive data will transform businesses with opportunities to monetize almost anything that can be measured. In this C-Level Roundtable Discussion at @ThingsExpo, Brendan O’Brien, Aria Systems Co-founder and Chief Evangelist, will lead an expert panel of consultants, thought leaders and practitioners who will look at these new monetization trends, discuss the implications, and detail lessons learned from their collective experience. Finally, the panel will point the way forward for enterprises who wish to leverage the resulting complex recurring revenue models, adding valu...
How is unified communications transforming the way businesses operate? In his session at WebRTC Summit, Arvind Rangarajan, Director of Product Marketing at BroadSoft, will discuss how to extend unified communications experience outside the enterprise through WebRTC. He will also review use cases across different industry verticals. Arvind Rangarajan is Director, Product Marketing at BroadSoft. He has over 19 years of experience in the telecommunications industry in various roles such as Software Development, Product Management and Product Marketing, applied across Wireless, Unified Communic...
Buzzword alert: Microservices and IoT at a DevOps conference? What could possibly go wrong? Join this panel of experts as they peel away the buzz and discuss the important architectural principles behind implementing IoT solutions for the enterprise. As remote IoT devices and sensors become increasingly intelligent, they become part of our distributed cloud environment, and we must architect and code accordingly. At the very least, you’ll have no problem filling in your buzzword bingo cards.
Internet of Things (IoT) will be a hybrid ecosystem of diverse devices and sensors collaborating with operational and enterprise systems to create the next big application. In their session at @ThingsExpo, Bramh Gupta, founder and CEO of robomq.io, and Fred Yatzeck, principal architect leading product development at robomq.io, will discuss how choosing the right middleware and integration strategy from the get-go will enable IoT solution developers to adapt and grow with the industry, while at the same time reduce Time to Market (TTM) by using plug and play capabilities offered by a robust I...
@ThingsExpo has been named the Top 5 Most Influential Internet of Things Brand by Onalytica in the ‘The Internet of Things Landscape 2015: Top 100 Individuals and Brands.' Onalytica analyzed Twitter conversations around the #IoT debate to uncover the most influential brands and individuals driving the conversation. Onalytica captured data from 56,224 users. The PageRank based methodology they use to extract influencers on a particular topic (tweets mentioning #InternetofThings or #IoT in this case) takes into account the number and quality of contextual references that a user receives.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Dyn, the worldwide leader in Internet Performance, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 16th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Dyn is a cloud-based Internet Performance company. Dyn helps companies monitor, control, and optimize online infrastructure for an exceptional end-user experience. Through a world-class network and unrivaled, objective intelligence into Internet conditions, Dyn ensures traffic gets delivered faster, safer, and more reliably than ever.
IoT is still a vague buzzword for many people. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Mike Kavis, Vice President & Principal Cloud Architect at Cloud Technology Partners, discussed the business value of IoT that goes far beyond the general public's perception that IoT is all about wearables and home consumer services. He also discussed how IoT is perceived by investors and how venture capitalist access this space. Other topics discussed were barriers to success, what is new, what is old, and what the future may hold. Mike Kavis is Vice President & Principal Cloud Architect at Cloud Technology Pa...
The only place to be June 9-11 is Cloud Expo & @ThingsExpo 2015 East at the Javits Center in New York City. Join us there as delegates from all over the world come to listen to and engage with speakers & sponsors from the leading Cloud Computing, IoT & Big Data companies. Cloud Expo & @ThingsExpo are the leading events covering the booming market of Cloud Computing, IoT & Big Data for the enterprise. Speakers from all over the world will be hand-picked for their ability to explore the economic strategies that utility/cloud computing provides. Whether public, private, or in a hybrid form, clo...
The WebRTC Summit 2015 New York, to be held June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York, NY, announces that its Call for Papers is open. Topics include all aspects of improving IT delivery by eliminating waste through automated business models leveraging cloud technologies. WebRTC Summit is co-located with 16th International Cloud Expo, @ThingsExpo, Big Data Expo, and DevOps Summit.
As Marc Andreessen says software is eating the world. Everything is rapidly moving toward being software-defined – from our phones and cars through our washing machines to the datacenter. However, there are larger challenges when implementing software defined on a larger scale - when building software defined infrastructure. In his session at 16th Cloud Expo, Boyan Ivanov, CEO of StorPool, will provide some practical insights on what, how and why when implementing "software-defined" in the datacenter.
While not quite mainstream yet, WebRTC is starting to gain ground with Carriers, Enterprises and Independent Software Vendors (ISV’s) alike. WebRTC makes it easy for developers to add audio and video communications into their applications by using Web browsers as their platform. But like any market, every customer engagement has unique requirements, as well as constraints. And of course, one size does not fit all. In her session at WebRTC Summit, Dr. Natasha Tamaskar, Vice President, Head of Cloud and Mobile Strategy at GENBAND, will explore what is needed to take a real time communications ...