Welcome!

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

Related Topics: Linux

Linux: Article

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.

Comments (2)

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 SOA Software, an API management leader, 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. SOA Software is a leading provider of API Management and SOA Governance products that equip business to deliver APIs and SOA together to drive their company to meet its business strategy quickly and effectively. SOA Software’s technology helps businesses to accelerate their digital channels with APIs, drive partner adoption, monetize their assets, and achieve a...
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.