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Everything goes faster

Xfce, which is also a minimalist desktop environment, has a much longer history. Xfce was first written back in 1996 by Olivier Fourdan, and named the XForms Common Environment after the XForms toolkit on which it was based. It has since been rewritten using GTK+, and no longer references XForms.


Zoom The Xfce desktop.
Xfce is popular and configurable, and has been the default desktop for a number of Linux distributions and their derivatives. Xfce uses its own window manager and includes a compositing manager for true transparency and shadows. A newish file manager, Thunar, written by Benedikt Meurer, has replaced the traditional file manager, xffm, and reached version 1.0 last year.

Xfce has gone through several iterations and rewrites. Like LXDE, Xfce stresses its modularity and freedom from bloat as a basic requirement for speed and lightness, and includes a number of optional tools and programs which can be used to elaborate the experience of the desktop. As for all the lightweight desktops there is nothing except aesthetics and memory capacity to stop the user firing up GNOME or KDE applications on an XFCE desktop.

It is perhaps surprising that both LXDE and Xfce are written using GTK+, which was developed for GIMP and is also used by GNOME. Hong Yen Jee says that one of his aims in rewriting the PCMan file manager is to include support for "glib/gio and gvfs but still keep the original performance and memory usage. I know many people don't believe this, and think using gio/gvfs from GNOME will make it slower and heavier... Many people said that GTK+ programs are slow and not lightweight, but as you know, PCManFM already proved that they are wrong."

Roxette


Zoom The ROX desktop.
One of the more interesting desktop alternatives is the ROX Desktop which aims to bring a RISC OS desktop to Linux (and other Unix-like operating systems). ROX adheres to a philosophy similar to that of LXDE and Xfce in that its developer have a stated preference for modularity and small programs "instead of creating all-in-one mega-applications."

ROX has an attractive outward appearance, which "revolves around the file manager, or filer, following the traditional Unix view that 'everything is a file' rather than trying to hide the file system beneath start menus, wizards, or druids."

While the ROX Desktop has not been widely adopted, the file manager, ROX Filer, is the default file manager for Puppy Linux, and is preferred by many users of low impact window managers such as Blackbox and Fluxbox.

Back to the future

While the lightweight desktop environments seek to emulate some of the look and feel and functionality of the classic desktop, window managers have a more specific task of managing windows, managing their behaviour and appearance, launching applications, and looking after some system behaviours such as suspending, reboots, and managing files.

There are many window managers of varying elegance and sophistication. The more common window managers of the nineties such as twm, Fvwm and Windowmaker are now less in evidence than they used to be, having been replaced by Blackbox, and its descendants such as Openbox and Fluxbox. Blackbox describes itself quite simply as a "light window manager, without all those annoying library dependencies." Perhaps ironically, its original creator, Bradley T. Hughes, now works for Trolltech (Nokia) in Norway on the Qt toolkit, which forms the underpinning for KDE, the most heavyweight of all the Linux desktops.

But perhaps the most astounding of the Linux window managers is Enlightenment, which began life as a simple if lean, fast and extremely decorative window manager, created by Carsten 'Rasterman' Haitzler in 1997. Enlightenment was the window manager that "wanted to do things differently" and became the thing of the moment, sometimes used as an independent window manager, and sometimes in conjunction with GNOME.

An alien enlightenment


Zoom The Enlightenment desktop.
Enlightenment was even mentioned in science fiction writer Neal Stephenson's 1999 essay "In The Beginning There Was the Command Line" in which he said "I have my eye on a completely different window manager called Enlightenment, which may be the hippest single technology product I have ever seen," and surmised that it was "the sort of window manager that might show up in the backdrop of an Aliens movie." But in 2000 Rasterman began work on the next version of Enlightenment, E17, and interest slowly fell away as the years passed without E17 making an appearance.

In the interim Enlightenment, E17 or DR17, as it is sometimes known, has become something more than a simple window manager, and is described by the developers as a "desktop shell", something between a window manager and a full featured desktop environment, set around a set of software libraries, the Enlightenment Foundation Libraries (EFL) which form a programmer's toolbox for those who want "to be able to do more with less."

The developers claim that "Enlightenment libraries already power millions of systems, from mobile phones to set top boxes, desktops, laptops, game systems and more. It is only now being recognised for its forward-thinking approaches, as products and designers want to do more than the boring functional user experiences of the past." The Enlightenment crew claim that "Free.fr is shipping millions of set top boxes in France, powered by EFL. The Openmoko Freerunner sold thousands of devices with EFL on them. Yellow Dog Linux for the Sony PS3 ships with Enlightenment as the default. EFL has been used on printers, netbooks and more."

E17 is still in development, but can be experienced through OpenGEU, an Ubuntu based distribution that uses E17 as its window manager, or on the live distribution, Elive, which was created to demonstrate the graphical power, eye candy and usefulness of what continues to be a lean and fast window manager.

For other feature articles by Richard Hillesley, please see the archive.

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