Opening the X-Window

Courting the Daemon, part 2.

X-Windows logo


There are almost two dozen different X-Window clients available for users of FreeBSD, Linux, and Unix, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. Advocates of the various window managers have engaged in religious wars with other advocates, all trying to determine whose window manager has the biggest pointer.

I’m not going to get into that, at least not in any depth. Personally, I don’t see the point (no pun intended). Not all users work the same way. Even Microsoft and Apple know this, so they allow for customization of their GUI clients. Granted, they generally don’t provide as many options as X-Windows, but they provide enough for most users to work with.

So to the various advocates of the various window managers, I must say this: use the one you like, and be happy. One of the best things about the world of open source software is that users can customize things as they see fit, up to and including the character of their GUI.

That being said, there is something I want to quickly look at, which has surfaced in recent years within the FreeBSD community. That is, should FreeBSD have its own, dedicated X-window client?

When I entered the world of FreeBSD, I had some experience with X-Windows during my Linux experiments, so I knew something about their various characteristics. My first FreeBSD instillation was PC-BSD version 1.5 (“Edison”), and it came with KDE-3.1 as the standard X-Window client.

KDE-3.1 looked and felt like a Windows or Macintosh interface. This is to say it was very similar to what I was accustomed at the time, so I was able to get to work fairly quickly. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time learning a new interface and/or figuring out how to do the most basic of tasks. I was, after all, using an operating system that I wasn’t familiar with, and I knew from my Linux experience that Unix-derived systems are not easy to grasp. However, I was able to start using my system, and largely it was because of KDE. I found I could use KDE to accomplish most tasks, while learning the Unix-based underpinnings on my own time and at my own pace. KDE turned out to be a good teaching mechanism.

Granted, KDE isn’t the only desktop environment available, and I’m not sure it’s even the best. But for someone coming from a Windows or Macintosh environment, it’s familiar and easy to learn. When PC-BSD got started, it was probably the best choice available for training new users in the FreeBSD operating system. At the time, one of the developers said that one of the big motivations behind PC-BSD was to make FreeBSD more accessible to new users. That was the case for me, and it was largely because the GUI was easy to work with. Over time I became more comfortable with the FreeBSD system that lurks below the PC-BSD dressing, and eventually I was able to do some of the more complex Unix tricks that the old pros do all the time. Newbies don’t remain newbies forever, after all. Eventually I settled on the WindowMaker window manager, which when compared to KDE is minimalist.

But even so, KDE is still available should the need arise. And there are other desktop environment clients, like XFCE, Gnome and LXDE, which provide a Windows or Macintosh style environment. For a newbie, this is a good thing, and I highly recommend one of those for such users. For example, my Windows 8.1 instillation recently flaked out (surprise surprise…) and it may be some time before I can repair it. This caused problems for my nine-year old daughter, as she sometimes uses my computer when I’m at work. I set up an account for her on my FreeBSD instillation, and it defaults to KDE 4.1. As far as I know, she’s had no trouble figuring out how to find what she needs to find. I suspect she doesn’t care about KDE 4.1’s shortcomings, just so long as she can find Firefox and play Animal Jam or access PBS Kids. As for my wife, she just wants a selection of web browsers, and access to a word processor (she’s a freelance writer and web developer). KDE 4.1 to set to deliver those as well. Additional Unix experience is helpful, but not necessary.

So to bring this back to point, should FreeBSD (in it’s various forms) have its own, dedicated X-window client, as opposed to one of the carry overs from Solaris or Linux? Personally, I don’t think so. New users are going to want a GUI client that can get them up and running easily, and help familiarize them with the new environment. KDE, XFCE and Gnome can all do that. New users should be allowed to get the basics down on their own time, and at their own pace. The training wheels can come off when the time comes.

Does FreeBSD need a GUI client that targets advances users? Absolutely not. Advanced users are going to make their own choices and customize their system to their liking no matter what the initial GUI looks like. Some even develop their own X-windows client! So I don’t think there is much point to having a standard GUI for FreeBSD, because users aren’t likely to retain it! In fact, standardizing such things runs counter to the whole philosophy of open source computing, and most hackers aren’t likely to suffer such a restriction.

So now that I’ve gotten my editorial out of the way, let’s look at my window manager of choice…


PC-BSD is endorsing, and contributing to a new desktop environment X-client called Lumina. It’s still under development, but it looks like it would also be a good teaching and transition tool for new users. At a quick glance, Lumina seems to have a more Macintosh-like feel to it. New users from the Apple orchard should feel right at home.

Related links:

  • Xorg home page
  • Window managers for X
  • FreeBSD project