LXDE, the Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment, is the fastest and most economical of the desktop environments available for Linux. The first component of LXDE, the PCMan file manager, was written as recently as 2006 by a Taiwanese programmer, Hong Yen Jee, who is also known as PCMan.
LXDE uses the same Gtk+ toolkit as GNOME and Xfce, but is clean and mean, and significantly faster. The developers point out that while "writing programs with gtk+ is really a pain", factors such as internationalisation and usability are as important in developing a desktop as considerations of lightness and speed. Newer and leaner toolkits, such as FLTK and FOX, are not yet up to scratch in areas such as i18n support, which are important to the LXDE developers.
Just the same, LXDE outperforms its cousins and is becoming more popular with a wide cross-section of the community as a desktop without the fuss, which is also surprisingly configurable and fully featured. In a January 2010 analysis of Distrowatch statistics for the previous two years, with the usual disclaimers, Ladislav Bodnar of Distrowatch noted that "an interesting thing is the rise of distributions that use the lightweight, but full-featured LXDE desktop or the Openbox window manager (which LXDE also uses). As an example, Lubuntu now comfortably beats Kubuntu in terms of page hits, while CrunchBang Linux, a lightweight distribution with Openbox is still in the top 25 even though it failed to produce a stable release for well over a year. Many other distributions started offering LXDE-based editions of their products, further contributing to the dramatic rise in popularity of this relatively new desktop environment."
LXDE is available with most distributions, and is the default desktop on a growing number of minimalist distributions. But the biggest success of LXDE is in the market for cloud-based products, the very markets that GNOME 3 and Unity are hoping to break into.
As Mario Behling, president of the LXDE Foundation, pointed out in an Italian interview, "LXDE comes from Asia. So, support of multi-languages was a priority from day one... During my recent trip to China, I saw many extremely innovative companies, so called Chinese Shanzhai companies, selling thousands and thousands of devices with LXDE components. Hardware manufacturers make very tight calculations, but in the end devices have to work. This is a field where we are cooperating with producers. One developer in China has ported LXDE to a device with 128 RAM, 400 MHZ CPU and a screen with a resolution of 800×400. Of course you can use mobile operating systems like Android for those devices, but if you want to take advantage of those 60,000 applications running with Debian for example, you need a system that supports the X Window System... Besides that, Android only supports a limited number of devices, whereas LXDE can run on thousands of platforms with, for example, Debian."
The developers have their own justifications for re-inventing the desktop in a smaller image, which includes the observation that "if Windows 98 and XP work quite well on old machines, why does my Linux desktop need a 1.0 GHz CPU + 1GB RAM? We don't believe building such a usable desktop environment requires that much resource usage, so we tried it ourselves," and came to the conclusion that "reinventing the wheel is cool, and we love it!"
The Interface Nazis
The desktop defines the user's relationship with his or her working environment. Usability matters, and users don't like change. But users are inconsistent too. Back in 2005, issues with GNOME's policy of restricting configuration options to enhance consistency and usability provoked Linus Torvalds to write: "I personally just encourage people to switch to KDE. This 'users are idiots, and are confused by functionality' mentality of GNOME is a disease. If you think your users are idiots, only idiots will use it. I don't use GNOME, because in striving to be simple, it has long since reached the point where it simply doesn't do what I need it to do. Please, just tell people to use KDE."
He also said that "GNOME seems to be developed by interface Nazis, where consistently the excuse for not doing something is not 'it's too complicated to do', but 'it would confuse users'", and continued this argument two years later on the Linux Foundation's Desktop Architects mailing list.
By 2009, however, he was complaining that "I used to be a KDE user. I thought KDE 4.0 was such a disaster, I switched to GNOME. I hate the fact that my right button doesn't do what I want it to do. But the whole 'break everything' model is painful for users, and they can choose to use something else. I realize the reason for the 4.0 release, but I think they did it badly. They did so may changes, it was a half-baked release. It may turn out to be the right decision in the end, and I will retry KDE, but I suspect I'm not the only person they lost."
LXDE and Xfce can be seen as slimmer versions of GNOME as it was before the changes came. Both have their own virtues as lightweight desktop environments with a multitude of uses. But there are no easy rules that fit every user, and usability as it is applied to the desktop means little more than a set of compromises which cannot satisfy every demand.
The interesting part of the story may be to see whether GNOME and its users reconcile their differences over the months to come, or if the niche for Xfce and LXDE has grown.
For other feature articles by Richard Hillesley, please see the archive.