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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.


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.


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 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.


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.

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