Welcome!

Linux Authors: Carmen Gonzalez, Liz McMillan, Liz Dickinson, Trevor Parsons, Anne Buff

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 Aria Systems, the recurring revenue expert, has been named "Bronze Sponsor" of SYS-CON's 15th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 4-6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Aria Systems helps leading businesses connect their customers with the products and services they love. Industry leaders like Pitney Bowes, Experian, AAA NCNU, VMware, HootSuite and many others choose Aria to power their recurring revenue business and deliver exceptional experiences to their customers.
SYS-CON Events announced today that AgilePoint, the leading provider of Microsoft-centric Business Process Management software, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 2nd International @ThingsExpo which will take place on November 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. AgilePoint is the leading provider of Microsoft-based Business Process Management (BPM) software products, has 1,300+ on-premise and cloud deployments in 25+ countries and provides the same advanced BPM feature set as J2EE vendors like IBM and Appian for the Microsoft .NET native environment. AgilePoint customer...
The Internet of Things (IoT) promises to evolve the way the world does business; however, understanding how to apply it to your company can be a mystery. Most people struggle with understanding the potential business uses or tend to get caught up in the technology, resulting in solutions that fail to meet even minimum business goals. In his session at Internet of @ThingsExpo, Jesse Shiah, CEO / President / Co-Founder of AgilePoint Inc., will show what is needed to leverage the IoT to transform your business. He will discuss opportunities and challenges ahead for the IoT from a market and tec...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Utimaco will exhibit at SYS-CON's 15th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Utimaco is a leading manufacturer of hardware based security solutions that provide the root of trust to keep cryptographic keys safe, secure critical digital infrastructures and protect high value data assets. Only Utimaco delivers a general-purpose hardware security module (HSM) as a customizable platform to easily integrate into existing software solutions, embed business logic and build s...
One of the biggest challenges when developing connected devices is identifying user value and delivering it through successful user experiences. In his session at Internet of @ThingsExpo, Mike Kuniavsky, Principal Scientist, Innovation Services at PARC, will describe an IoT-specific approach to user experience design that combines approaches from interaction design, industrial design and service design to create experiences that go beyond simple connected gadgets to create lasting, multi-device experiences grounded in people’s real needs and desires.
SYS-CON Events announced today that TeleStax, the main sponsor of Mobicents, will exhibit at Internet of @ThingsExpo, which will take place on November 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. TeleStax provides Open Source Communications software and services that facilitate the shift from legacy SS7 based IN networks to IP based LTE and IMS networks hosted on private (on-premise), hybrid or public clouds. TeleStax products include Restcomm, JSLEE, SMSC Gateway, USSD Gateway, SS7 Resource Adaptors, SIP Servlets, Rich Multimedia Services, Presence Services/RCS, Diame...
Samsung VP Jacopo Lenzi, who headed the company's recent SmartThings acquisition under the auspices of Samsung's Open Innovaction Center (OIC), answered a few questions we had about the deal. This interview was in conjunction with our interview with SmartThings CEO Alex Hawkinson. IoT Journal: SmartThings was developed in an open, standards-agnostic platform, and will now be part of Samsung's Open Innovation Center. Can you elaborate on your commitment to keep the platform open? Jacopo Lenzi: Samsung recognizes that true, accelerated innovation cannot be driven from one source, but requires a...
The Internet of Things will greatly expand the opportunities for data collection and new business models driven off of that data. In her session at Internet of @ThingsExpo, Esmeralda Swartz, CMO of MetraTech, will discuss how for this to be effective you not only need to have infrastructure and operational models capable of utilizing this new phenomenon, but increasingly service providers will need to convince a skeptical public to participate. Get ready to show them the money! Speaker Bio: Esmeralda Swartz, CMO of MetraTech, has spent 16 years as a marketing, product management, and busin...
Things are being built upon cloud foundations to transform organizations. This CEO Power Panel at 15th Cloud Expo, moderated by Roger Strukhoff, Cloud Expo and @ThingsExpo conference chair, will address the big issues involving these technologies and, more important, the results they will achieve. How important are public, private, and hybrid cloud to the enterprise? How does one define Big Data? And how is the IoT tying all this together?
We certainly live in interesting technological times. And no more interesting than the current competing IoT standards for connectivity. Various standards bodies, approaches, and ecosystems are vying for mindshare and positioning for a competitive edge. It is clear that when the dust settles, we will have new protocols, evolved protocols, that will change the way we interact with devices and infrastructure. We will also have evolved web protocols, like HTTP/2, that will be changing the very core of our infrastructures. At the same time, we have old approaches made new again like micro-services...
SYS-CON Events announces a new pavilion on the Cloud Expo floor where WebRTC converges with the Internet of Things. Pavilion will showcase WebRTC and the Internet of Things. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the most profound change in personal and enterprise IT since the creation of the Worldwide Web more than 20 years ago. All major researchers estimate there will be tens of billions devices--computers, smartphones, tablets, and sensors – connected to the Internet by 2020. This number will continue to grow at a rapid pace for the next several decades.
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...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Gridstore™, the leader in software-defined storage (SDS) purpose-built for Windows Servers and Hyper-V, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 15th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Gridstore™ is the leader in software-defined storage purpose built for virtualization that is designed to accelerate applications in virtualized environments. Using its patented Server-Side Virtual Controller™ Technology (SVCT) to eliminate the I/O blender effect and accelerate applications Gridsto...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Red Hat, the world's leading provider of open source solutions, will exhibit at Internet of @ThingsExpo, which will take place on November 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Red Hat is the world's leading provider of open source software solutions, using a community-powered approach to reliable and high-performing cloud, Linux, middleware, storage and virtualization technologies. Red Hat also offers award-winning support, training, and consulting services. As the connective hub in a global network of enterprises, partners, a...
As the Internet of Things unfolds, mobile and wearable devices are blurring the line between physical and digital, integrating ever more closely with our interests, our routines, our daily lives. Contextual computing and smart, sensor-equipped spaces bring the potential to walk through a world that recognizes us and responds accordingly. We become continuous transmitters and receivers of data. In his session at Internet of @ThingsExpo, Andrew Bolwell, Director of Innovation for HP’s Printing and Personal Systems Group, will discuss how key attributes of mobile technology – touch input, senso...
The Internet of Things (IoT) is making everything it touches smarter – smart devices, smart cars and smart cities. And lucky us, we’re just beginning to reap the benefits as we work toward a networked society. However, this technology-driven innovation is impacting more than just individuals. The IoT has an environmental impact as well, which brings us to the theme of this month’s #IoTuesday Twitter chat. The ability to remove inefficiencies through connected objects is driving change throughout every sector, including waste management. BigBelly Solar, located just outside of Boston, is trans...
Connected devices and the Internet of Things are getting significant momentum in 2014. In his session at Internet of @ThingsExpo, Jim Hunter, Chief Scientist & Technology Evangelist at Greenwave Systems, will examine three key elements that together will drive mass adoption of the IoT before the end of 2015. The first element is the recent advent of robust open source protocols (like AllJoyn and WebRTC) that facilitate M2M communication. The second is broad availability of flexible, cost-effective storage designed to handle the massive surge in back-end data in a world where timely analytics...
Internet of @ThingsExpo Silicon Valley announced on Thursday its first 12 all-star speakers and sessions for its upcoming event, which will take place November 4-6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in California. @ThingsExpo, the first and largest IoT event in the world, debuted at the Javits Center in New York City in June 10-12, 2014 with over 6,000 delegates attending the conference. Among the first 12 announced world class speakers, IBM will present two highly popular IoT sessions, which will take place November 4-6, 2014 at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, Calif...
From a software development perspective IoT is about programming "things," about connecting them with each other or integrating them with existing applications. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Yakov Fain, co-founder of Farata Systems and SuranceBay, will show you how small IoT-enabled devices from multiple manufacturers can be integrated into the workflow of an enterprise application. This is a practical demo of building a framework and components in HTML/Java/Mobile technologies to serve as a platform that can integrate new devices as they become available on the market.
SYS-CON Events announced today that O'Reilly Media has been named “Media Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 15th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. O'Reilly Media spreads the knowledge of innovators through its books, online services, magazines, and conferences. Since 1978, O'Reilly Media has been a chronicler and catalyst of cutting-edge development, homing in on the technology trends that really matter and spurring their adoption by amplifying "faint signals" from the alpha geeks who are creating the future. An...