Apr 2009

X Window Managers Part 2

In part 1 of the series we looked at the early X window managers that ran on X display protocol based systems. The scale and range of them was from the very beginning where a user was presented with a menu and windows and little else (perhaps a clock or loadmeter) up to what could be considered the first window manager that went beyond providing the basics to providing more of an environment and extensibility through modules that allowed other hackers to join in the fun. In this part 2 of the series two more distinct groups of window managers will be peeked at; first a look at the evolution of that first more of an environment than just window managing software; many of which cropped up right around the same time (within a few years of eachother). Second the kickback against large scale environments with an examination of a breed of window managers designed to be ultra light/fast while still preserving good looks.

Window Manager Environments

When free software was taking off so was the economy in the tech sector. Hardware acceleration of all types was running at break neck speeds with the promise of hitting the wall soon! (which still hasn't really happened). At the same time many heretofore tomes of knowledge about X programming were being updated and republished, put online etc. Add to the pile the rocketing take off of the internet it was time to innovate and create new wicked cool desktop environments.


The FVWM window manager underwent enough changes to be dubbed FVWM2; a completely new implementation of fvwm. It still retained its core features and has since advanced into the realm of all sorts of cool stuff. Also, along the way, a forked version of fvwm was created called fvwm95 which looked and felt a lot like a certain other software product with the 95 nomenclature in its name:



The AfterStep window manager leveraged the dock and wharf interface paradigm similar to the NeXTSTEP interface. The Afterstep window manager was so popular it shipped as the default for several Linux kernel based distributions. What is interesting in the afterstep design is the collapsable wharf in dock items:


Not unlike other managers AfterStep has evolved to have plenty of chrome but still pack a relatively low resource punch:


Afterstep ships with plenty of looks and feels that the user can peruse to change its appearance but nothing with very fine grained controls.


The windowmaker or wmaker for short window manager was modeled directly on the NeXTSTEP paradigm and leverages the GNUStep underpinnings to make it all work. WindowMaker is interesting as it was one of the first window managers from its inception that had a GUI Configuration tool which had fine control some of the aspects of appearance:


As with most surviving popular window managers windowmaker has evolved to be able to support a pretty fair amount of chrome:


Enlightenment DR15-16

Enlightenment sought to rethink everything and in many ways - it did. Initially developed by Carsten Haitzler (a.k.a. rasterman) enlightenment or simply e16 based several ideas from fvwm with one additional big idea; be heavy on the glitz and chrome because systems could take it and users deserve it:


E16 took off so much it soon attracted a large developer and theming community which rapidly produced extraordinarily good looking (and often fast) themese such as this one:


XFCE 1-3

Early XFCE versions sought to recreate the Common Desktop Environment (CDE) used by commercial vendors such as Hewlett Packard on HP-UX and Sun on SunOS. Note that was the initial goal of XFCE; it has since grown into its very own identity. Regardless of intent it quickly became popular in certain circles for people who were used to CDE and did not have anything comparable on their BSD or Linux based systems:


Early (late 90s) Fast Window Managers

Not everyone had the fastest systems, best graphics cards and gobs of memory in the late 1990s. In fact the pedestrian hacker usually was lacking in at least one of those departments on a system here or there. Even if a user did have fast graphics cards there was no guarentee it would work efficiently with Xfre86. Coupled with users who simply prefer simple and fast over big and pretty a very small resource intensive window manager was born which paved the way for several more. It was also around this time that many hackers were picking up the newly published X programming books. Mix it all together and you get a new breed of window managers.


Arguably the most popular and derived light window manager was blackbox. Blacbox was small, fast and sported the ever popular floating application menu (as well as window lists etc.) It was also very easy to configure themes for in a set of text files.


Blackbox development fell away but was quickly taken up again in the form of the still used Fluxbox window manager which sports similar features and some enhancements:


wm2 and wmx

The wm2/wmx windowmanagers were as simple as it gets. No configuration, no menus (just a mouse click to create new terminals) and zero glitz. Wm2 gathered up a small following of die hards who wanted X as simple as it gets. In many ways it was akin to going backwards.



There is a huge list of other light and fast window managers out there to be found; among a few of them follow with brief descriptions of their functionality - most of these cropped up in early 2000s:

  • ratpoison/evilwm/piewm: similar to the original uwm window manager; just windows and borders mostly designed with portable devices in mind.
  • oroborus: A themable window manager lacking in features such as menus and taskbars but still nice enough to look at an use.
  • waimea: Another blackbox spinoff that gained some popularity.
  • sapphire: Yet anohter blackbox spinoff that gained a following.
  • flvwm: Exactly what the acronym looks like; fast light virtual window manager.
  • awm: Amiga Window Manager; designed to look like the AmigaOS it was pretty fast.

Summary & Next Time

While the commercial world concentrated their efforts on applications and server services (and the open source world was too) it is incredible that; at certain points in time during the late 1990s and into our first 21st century decade some of the most brilliant, feature rich and sometimes complex (or incredibly simple) graphical environments came almost solely from hackers. In a strange sense; it is very telling.

Next time; the series takes the leap into full blown desktop systems such as GNOME and KDE which were skipped in this part of the series since they are far more than environments. After the full blown environment a revisit to the new versions of XFCE and Enlightenment and wrapping it up a look at some the advancements coming out of Freedesktop.org.

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