Click here to close now.




















Welcome!

Linux Containers Authors: Carmen Gonzalez, Nicholas Lee, Pat Romanski, Liz McMillan, Elizabeth White

Related Topics: Linux Containers

Linux Containers: 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
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!
SYS-CON Events announced today that the "Second Containers & Microservices Expo" will take place November 3-5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Containers and microservices have become topics of intense interest throughout the cloud developer and enterprise IT communities.
In his session at @ThingsExpo, Lee Williams, a producer of the first smartphones and tablets, will talk about how he is now applying his experience in mobile technology to the design and development of the next generation of Environmental and Sustainability Services at ETwater. He will explain how M2M controllers work through wirelessly connected remote controls; and specifically delve into a retrofit option that reverse-engineers control codes of existing conventional controller systems so they don't have to be replaced and are instantly converted to become smart, connected devices.
Akana has announced the availability of the new Akana Healthcare Solution. The API-driven solution helps healthcare organizations accelerate their transition to being secure, digitally interoperable businesses. It leverages the Health Level Seven International Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (HL7 FHIR) standard to enable broader business use of medical data. Akana developed the Healthcare Solution in response to healthcare businesses that want to increase electronic, multi-device access to health records while reducing operating costs and complying with government regulations.
SYS-CON Events announced today that IceWarp will exhibit at the 17th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 3–5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. IceWarp, the leader of cloud and on-premise messaging, delivers secured email, chat, documents, conferencing and collaboration to today's mobile workforce, all in one unified interface
SYS-CON Events announced today that Micron Technology, Inc., a global leader in advanced semiconductor systems, will exhibit at the 17th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 3–5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Micron’s broad portfolio of high-performance memory technologies – including DRAM, NAND and NOR Flash – is the basis for solid state drives, modules, multichip packages and other system solutions. Backed by more than 35 years of technology leadership, Micron's memory solutions enable the world's most innovative computing, consumer,...
SYS-CON Events announced today the Containers & Microservices Bootcamp, being held November 3-4, 2015, in conjunction with 17th Cloud Expo, @ThingsExpo, and @DevOpsSummit at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. This is your chance to get started with the latest technology in the industry. Combined with real-world scenarios and use cases, the Containers and Microservices Bootcamp, led by Janakiram MSV, a Microsoft Regional Director, will include presentations as well as hands-on demos and comprehensive walkthroughs.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Pythian, a global IT services company specializing in helping companies leverage disruptive technologies to optimize revenue-generating systems, has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 17th Cloud Expo, which will take place on November 3–5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Founded in 1997, Pythian is a global IT services company that helps companies compete by adopting disruptive technologies such as cloud, Big Data, advanced analytics, and DevOps to advance innovation and increase agility. Specializing in designing, imple...
17th Cloud Expo, taking place Nov 3-5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. Cloud computing is now being embraced by a majority of enterprises of all sizes. Yesterday's debate about public vs. private has transformed into the reality of hybrid cloud: a recent survey shows that 74% of enterprises have a hybrid cloud strategy. Meanwhile, 94% of enterprises are using some form of XaaS – software, platform, and infrastructure as a service.
With the Apple Watch making its way onto wrists all over the world, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a staple in the workplace. In fact, Forrester reported that 68 percent of technology and business decision-makers characterize wearables as a top priority for 2015. Recognizing their business value early on, FinancialForce.com was the first to bring ERP to wearables, helping streamline communication across front and back office functions. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Kevin Roberts, GM of Platform at FinancialForce.com, will discuss the value of business applications on wearable ...
The 3rd International WebRTC Summit, to be held Nov. 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, announces that its Call for Papers is now 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 15th International Cloud Expo, 6th International Big Data Expo, 3rd International DevOps Summit and 2nd Internet of @ThingsExpo. WebRTC (Web-based Real-Time Communication) is an open source project supported by Google, Mozilla and Opera that aims to enable bro...
WebRTC services have already permeated corporate communications in the form of videoconferencing solutions. However, WebRTC has the potential of going beyond and catalyzing a new class of services providing more than calls with capabilities such as mass-scale real-time media broadcasting, enriched and augmented video, person-to-machine and machine-to-machine communications. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Luis Lopez, CEO of Kurento, will introduce the technologies required for implementing these ideas and some early experiments performed in the Kurento open source software community in areas ...
Consumer IoT applications provide data about the user that just doesn’t exist in traditional PC or mobile web applications. This rich data, or “context,” enables the highly personalized consumer experiences that characterize many consumer IoT apps. This same data is also providing brands with unprecedented insight into how their connected products are being used, while, at the same time, powering highly targeted engagement and marketing opportunities. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Nathan Treloar, President and COO of Bebaio, will explore examples of brands transforming their businesses by t...
SYS-CON Events announced today that HPM Networks will exhibit at the 17th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 3–5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. For 20 years, HPM Networks has been integrating technology solutions that solve complex business challenges. HPM Networks has designed solutions for both SMB and enterprise customers throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.
While many app developers are comfortable building apps for the smartphone, there is a whole new world out there. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Narayan Sainaney, Co-founder and CTO of Mojio, will discuss how the business case for connected car apps is growing and, with open platform companies having already done the heavy lifting, there really is no barrier to entry.
Too often with compelling new technologies market participants become overly enamored with that attractiveness of the technology and neglect underlying business drivers. This tendency, what some call the “newest shiny object syndrome,” is understandable given that virtually all of us are heavily engaged in technology. But it is also mistaken. Without concrete business cases driving its deployment, IoT, like many other technologies before it, will fade into obscurity.
With major technology companies and startups seriously embracing IoT strategies, now is the perfect time to attend @ThingsExpo in Silicon Valley. Learn what is going on, contribute to the discussions, and ensure that your enterprise is as "IoT-Ready" as it can be! Internet of @ThingsExpo, taking place Nov 3-5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, is co-located with 17th Cloud Expo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the most profound change in personal an...
As more intelligent IoT applications shift into gear, they’re merging into the ever-increasing traffic flow of the Internet. It won’t be long before we experience bottlenecks, as IoT traffic peaks during rush hours. Organizations that are unprepared will find themselves by the side of the road unable to cross back into the fast lane. As billions of new devices begin to communicate and exchange data – will your infrastructure be scalable enough to handle this new interconnected world?
With the proliferation of connected devices underpinning new Internet of Things systems, Brandon Schulz, Director of Luxoft IoT – Retail, will be looking at the transformation of the retail customer experience in brick and mortar stores in his session at @ThingsExpo. Questions he will address include: Will beacons drop to the wayside like QR codes, or be a proximity-based profit driver? How will the customer experience change in stores of all types when everything can be instrumented and analyzed? As an area of investment, how might a retail company move towards an innovation methodolo...
The Internet of Things is in the early stages of mainstream deployment but it promises to unlock value and rapidly transform how organizations manage, operationalize, and monetize their assets. IoT is a complex structure of hardware, sensors, applications, analytics and devices that need to be able to communicate geographically and across all functions. Once the data is collected from numerous endpoints, the challenge then becomes converting it into actionable insight.