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Community Column: To X or not to X. . . Desktop Enhancements Please!

Mar 23, 2001, 08:05 (91 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by David Wood)

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By David Wood

I started working with Linux about 6 years ago while a grunt tech at a computer superstore that shall remain nameless. I happened across it one day while surfing the then budding Internet for information on Unix-based operating systems for my Intel box. That was where I came across Slackware.

Back then, the typical Slackware distro came on floppies marked with a wonderful little A, B, C, or X code. So I downloaded every single disk. That came to something on the order of 20 tarballs slapped on disk. After the install, I battled with the X installation. One fried fixed frequency monitor later I had it running. And it was great. I had a real running Unix box. I was ecstatic. Why? I had just conquered a major technical hurdle and I was proud of myself, even if there had been no one around to see it.

Today, there are more Linux distros around than you can shake a stick at. I remember the big ELF format revolution and the more recent libc6/glibc2 evolution. But something has been bothering me for quite some time. With all these advances in the guts of the operating system there was still something not quite right. Then it hit me. I HATE X!

X Window is a windowing system that has finally outlived its current feature set.

"Really," you say, "Mr. Wood, you're a sicko," you say.

"Nay," I say.

X needs a serious face lift. People expect more now. I'm not saying that X can't be fixed, but we may need to start thinking about why we continue to use it. X was originally designed to be a bandwidth friendly way of delivering a GUI to what were effectively dumb terminals. Now however we are beginning to see a turn in Linux that is becoming an effort to bring it ever closer to the desktop. The problems of Linux on the desktop all revolve around the current desktop strategy. That strategy basically entails leaving the guts of the windowing system alone (i.e. X) and use Desktop Environments such as GNOME and KDE to chase Microsoft and Apple's feature sets. Good luck!

Yeah, okay, I did say I hated X. Now I'll tell you why.

It's not because it is not useful. Of course it is. I'm typing this from my spiffy new IBM laptop running, you guessed it, X under Linux. The millions of hours of programming time that have gone into X and GNOME and KDE and the other umpteen Window Managers out there have not been wasted, and they are certainly appreciated.

"So," you ask, "what's wrong!?"

In a word. . . Fugly. In another word. . . MIME! Frankly I'm a tinkerer, I have a nice GNOME desktop set up, I've got the 1.4 beta. I'm running Nautilus, I'm running Mozilla milestone 8. It works great. But it's still waaaaay too hard for any average user to set up all of that by themselves.

So, how do we solve these problems?

Well, as my rather astute father would say, be the customer. If you were a non-technical developer, what would you want to see. More importantly what would you not want to see.

  1. Users hate configuring stuff. I want my apps to share MIME types, network settings, etc. Don't give me any hooey about GNOME and KDE having built in MIME types. If I'm running a non-KDE/GNOME app like Mozilla. It grabs its mime type list from its own directory and it has no bearing on what Konquerer or Opera use. It's not because it can't be done either. Microsoft and Apple work with their software vendors on these issues all the time. If GNOME and KDE are so great, why don't they have a built in utility for setting something so simple as an IP address and DNS address? Why doesn't X automatically use my USB mouse when I plug it in?
  2. Users hate FUGLY! Anti-alias those fonts. Start using semi-transparent menus. How about MPEG icons showing the first three seconds of the mpeg in action when you hover over it (a stretch, I know). But lets be realistic. The Open Source community has built an entire set of operating systems from the ground up and challenged arguably the most powerful corporate entity in the world. Why can't we do them one better on the desktop and in file management. Why can't we have a better looking interface? Don't give me any garbage about freetype2 or E-Term being transparent. Freetype 2 doesn't help anything but truetype fonts, which have to be licensed. And E-Term is just a terminal window. That doesn't fix any windowing issues.
  3. Stop worrying about themes. GNOME has Themes, Mozilla has themes, KDE has themes. Who cares? So what? It's a colossal waste of programmer time to continue development of theme engines when my fonts still look like they came off a '69 teletype.
  4. Give me a common clipboard or get ye gone from my machine. Again, many of these big GUI projects such as GNOME and KDE tout a clipboard sharing mechanism. But really, this function belongs in X. That way you can't just write around it like the Mozilla team has.

So there you go. That's why I hate X. That's what I, the IT guy who wants desperately to get people off this crap OS that Microsoft is trying to cram down our throats, want to see change. It's up to those developers out there to get on the stick. I don't want anyone to get me wrong. I'm not discounting one character of code put into any of the systems mentioned above. I'm just trying to get the message out from the "user" community at large. We're the majority consumers. Give us what we want, or EVENTUALLY, someone else will. If Apple ports Carbon/Aqua/Cocoa to Intel/Linux, this opinion is rendered moot.

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