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Ion a not-too minimalist window manager

Ion does everything it needs to do to become my favorite window manager

(LinuxWorld) -- All right, I lied. In my last article, I promised to cover file managers you can add to window managers. Immediately afterward, I discovered another window manager that won me over in just minutes. It's called ion.

The minimalist

Ion is a minimalist window manager. Minimalist window managers refuse to rely on things like icons, title bars, window buttons, launch pads, and the like. I happen to like these kinds of window managers because they try to take the attitude that the window manager should be managing the windows, not the user. That's one of the biggest problems with desktop environments like Windows, KDE, GNOME, and others like them. They're pretty, but they expect you to do all the work of arranging windows, minimizing applications, clicking on icons, and so on.

Unfortunately, none of the minimalist window managers did everything I wanted them to do in a way that was easy enough to grasp, but powerful enough to let me work the way I like. That is, until now. So far, Ion has delivered everything I like in a window manager.

For example, one of the things I liked about a minimalist window manager I mentioned in a previous article, larswm, is that it automatically tiled the windows of open applications. This made good use of desktop real estate without having to deal with issues like icons or taskbars. The problem with larswm is that it tiled too many windows. It even tiled the current application when a pop-up dialog appeared, and the pop-up dialog took up the main portion of the screen. larswm eventually solved this problem, but in a way that was so confusing, difficult to configure, and with keystrokes so difficult to remember that it became a burden to use. I've concluded that auto-tiling just doesn't work, because you have to work too hard to compensate for the windows you don't want to be tiled automatically.

I also like tabbed window managers like pwm and fluxbox. These two let you group open windows into one tabbed window, and let you switch between applications by clicking on the tabs. This is the same kind of tabbed switching you can do between open windows in Mozilla, Opera, and Galeon, only instead of tabbed access to windows within one application, you get tabbed access to multiple applications.

What I don't like about pwm and fluxbox is that you still have to manage these windows yourself. You can't just open up a new application within a tabbed group. You have to open the application and then drag it into the group where you want it attached. Again, this is the work the window manager should do, not the user.

Ion breed

Then I discovered Ion. Ion is based on pwm, and combines the best of pwm, fluxbox and larswm into a single window manager. When you start up Ion, you get a single frame. Press F2 and it starts up a terminal. Press F3 and it prompts you for an application you want to start. You could type mozilla, for example, and start up the browser. Now you have two applications open in the same frame, with tabs you can click on to switch between the two. (You could also use the keystroke combination Alt-K-N to switch between them.) That solves the pwm and fluxbox problem. You don't need to take the extra step of adding applications to a group. It's done automatically.

As I worked on this article, I found myself switching back and forth between OpenOffice (the application I am using to write this column) and an open terminal displaying the manual page for Ion. You can use the Alt-K-K key sequence to switch between the two most recently used applications to do this. However, if you switch around to other open applications, you'll have to jump through many windows to get Alt-K-K to work for you again.

Here is a nicer trick than using Alt-K-K. Just go to OpenOffice and press Alt-F9. This will open a new workspace (a new frame in a new work area) and move OpenOffice to that new location. In this case, it will be workspace 2. Then go to the terminal with the Ion man page and press Alt-F9 again, and it will create workspace 3 and put it there. Now you can switch between these two workspaces with Alt-2 and Alt-3.

Ion also lets you do things like split frames vertically or horizontally, start new applications within the new frames, and resize frames. I haven't found these features useful yet, but perhaps they will come in handy at some point. If it does, this will provide the feature of tiling that larswm provides without the hassle of autotiling windows you don't want tiled.

Key differences

The more minimalist a window manager is, the less fluff you have on the screen. The less fluff you have on the screen, the less you can click with your mouse. That's not necessarily a bad thing. However, it means you have to remember the keystrokes required to resize windows, open new applications, switch between applications, and so on. As you can see from the examples above, some of the keystrokes are hardly intuitive, such as Alt-K-K. Do you even remember what that does? I wouldn't.

This brings me to a rant. I realize that everyone has their own taste and ability when it comes to things like this, but as far as I'm concerned, it should be against the law to use the words "key" and "sequence" together. That's one reason why I hate emacs and everything that behaves like it. There's no reason on earth anyone should have to type Control-X, and then Control-Anything-Else to get work done. If I can't do something in one keystroke or one key combination, either the task is not worth doing or the application isn't worth using. That goes for WordStar-based editors, too. Control-K-B and Control-K K? Not on your life.

Whenever I try out a new editor, the first thing I do is figure out how easy it is to reassign all the functions I tend to use. If I can set them to single keystrokes or single combinations, I'm happy. For example, I'll change the WordStar begin block sequence Control-K-B to Control-B. If I can't reassign all the functions I use to simple keystrokes, or if it's just too hard to figure out how, I don't use that editor. It's as simple as that. That's one reason I use the editor called "Joe" (Joe's Own Editor). It was easy to reconfigure, and now it's easy to use.

By the way, this is also one reason I had a hard time getting used to Linux at first. It was bad enough that many applications refuse to acknowledge certain key combinations (such as shift-arrow key). Every X11 terminal, console, and whatnot seems to interpret the keystrokes they do recognize differently than the other terminals. For example, if you run Eterm, the HOME key generates the keycodes ^[[7~, but if you run Xterm, it generates ^[[H. This can make it a nightmare to configure editors that work by keycodes. When you look at the history of Unix, all of this makes perfect sense, since there was no such thing as a standard terminal or keyboard. But to a person who comes from a DOS or Windows PC environment where an IBM PC keyboard is basically the same on every machine, it's annoying as heck.

In the case of Ion, it was not only easy to reconfigure to use my preferred keystrokes; it even respects the odd combinations like Shift-arrow. So I am now switching between tabbed windows with shift-arrow, the way I'm used to working with KDE's Konsole tabbed terminal application. I use Alt-Tab to switch between the most recently used applications. I use the arrow keys to resize frames (the defaults are "S" and "V"). I eliminated all of the key sequences for functions I'd use. I had it all done in less than 5 minutes.

Last words

So far, I only have one complaint about Ion. There are times when I open up a new terminal window and the applications I use within that window don't realize they have lots of columns and rows to work with. For example, I'll start up the Mutt e-mail client, and it will only use the upper left-hand corner of the open window. There may be an easier way to solve this problem, but I solve it by splitting the window or just resizing it. That seems to inform the terminal or the application (or both) of the true size of the window, and the application starts to behave properly.

Other than that, Ion does everything it needs to do to become my favorite window manager. I'm fickle about such things, so I may be back to KDE in a week. So far, Ion has kept me happier than a clam. I strongly recommend it to those of you who like minimalist window managers.

More Stories By Nicholas Petreley

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

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Most Recent Comments
Daniel Brockman 01/06/04 03:53:30 AM EST

Putting `resize` (those are backticks) in your shell startup script should reduce the pain of malfunctioning terminals.

Ryan 12/09/03 04:29:56 PM EST

In many unix applications the Control-L key will redraw the screen, you can use this in mutt and i believe it will adjust to the new size.