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XFce3: Now 100% Free Software!

By Norman M. Jacobowitz

The long-awaited and much-needed "third choice" in Desktop Environments for X ...

One of the biggest debates in the Free/Open Source Software community over the past year has been over KDE and GNOME. Perhaps the major bone of contention between the two camps was the issue of licensing, specifically the proprietary nature of the Qt library used by KDE.

During these debates and outright flame wars, an alternative was lurking in the background. Called XFce, it was a lighter-weight desktop environment. One could reasonably consider it a middle-ground solution: more configurable than running a window manager such as FVWM, but not the behemoth of KDE or the then-nascent GNOME. Unfortunately, XFce suffered from the same flaw -- a fatal flaw in the eyes of many -- as KDE: XFce was based on the Xforms library, a proprietary widget set for the X Window System.

Well, there is now some very good news for Free Software enthusiasts! Olivier Fourdan, author of XFce, has taken the dramatic step of rewriting the whole project, using the GIMP toolkit. Finally, we have what many consider the "holy grail" of desktop environments for X: a lightweight, highly configurable, reliable, attractive and 100% free alternative to KDE and GNOME.

Recently, Olivier was kind enough to agree to an e-mail interview and discuss these important developments.

Q: When and why did you first decide to write XFce?

A: In late 1996, I started to work as a help desk analyst. As part of this job, I was working with HP X terms running CDE. I really loved that environment, and tried to find something similar on Linux. Unfortunately, the only thing I found was the commercial port of the real CDE to Linux, and it was really much too expensive for me.

Then in early 1997, I started to play with XForms and fdesign, the GUI designer. One real cool thing about fdesign is its ability to generate compilable C code from scratch. The XFce project had started, but as usual, I really didn't think it could go that far! I just started coding a very basic toolbar with Xforms, and when I released the first version on SunSITE (now called Metalab), people started asking for more and more features.

Initially, XFce was just the toolbar, without the window manager and all the goodies. In 1998, I released XFce 2.x with xfwm, the window manager. The rest of the goodies came from release to release ...

Q: What compelled you to rewrite XFce using the GIMP toolkit? Was it for technical reasons, licensing reasons, or some mix of both?

A: I was thinking of porting XFce to GTK+ (the GIMP toolkit) for a long time. When the GNOME project started, somebody from the team sent me a mail from Mexico telling me they were starting a new desktop project with the GIMP toolkit and were looking for such a toolbar. Unfortunately, I did not know anything about GTK+ at that time and my skills in X programming were not as good as they are today.

Last year, when I released XFce 2.x, I talked with the people from Red Hat to see if they could use XFce in their distribution, but they did not want Xforms-based applications because of the license the library uses (it's free for private use and free applications, but the source code is not available).

As time passed, more and more projects were being based on the GIMP toolkit. I had to make something really new with XFce, include drag and drop, native language support, improve configurability, etc. So, at the end of March 1999, I decided to start XFce 3.0 and rewrite it entirely from scratch with GTK+.

Now I'm really glad I did that, XFce 3.0 is still fast and stable, and it features all I wanted for XFce, under the GNU General Public License, based exclusively on GNU tools (NLS, autoconf, automake, etc.)

Q: Do you know which Linux distributions ship with XFce? And do you know of any that will now ship with XFce3?

A: I think Red Hat and SuSE both ship XFce 2.x on their additional software packages, and Kevin Donnely has made a package for Debian. But still, as XFce 2.x was based on Xforms, none of these distributions include XFce in their base system. I know FreeBSD also provides XFce 2.x as an additional package.

XFce 3.0 is now all GPL, but I guess it is still much too recent to be included in any distribution -- although I really hope some distribution will include XFce 3.0 in their base packages, among other choices for the user.

Q: What do you think of GNOME and KDE, in general? Can you briefly summarize the relative merits of each versus XFce3?

A: KDE is the first attempt to provide Linux with a fully integrated desktop environment. I've been impressed by KDE 1.1! Unfortunately, KDE is too close to Microsoft Windows; I really don't like the "Start menu" style. Sometimes you have to go through several submenus to launch what you want (but this is a matter of taste). Moreover, KDE uses a lot of system resources. For example, I was not able to use KDE on an X terminal through a 10MB local network, whereas XFce works like a charm in such a configuration.

I don't know much about GNOME, as I could not make it work on my computer. But what I saw from it was very close to KDE, so the same remarks apply to GNOME. It seems to be so close to KDE that I don't understand what the need was for two similar environments on Linux.

I believe the desktop environment should be made to increase user productivity. Therefore, the goal is to keep most system resources for the applications, and not to consume all memory and CPU usage with the desktop environment. For example, does KDE or GNOME fit on a 1.44 MB floppy?

GNOME and KDE both provide a lot more integrated tools than XFce (although most of the time, separate tools are more powerful than the integrated ones; for example, I believe NEdit is better than any other Kedit or whatever). The exception is KFM, the KDE File Manager, which is far ahead the best program of all in KDE, in my opinion.

Some people say XFce is for the little systems, while GNOME and KDE are for bigger ones. I don't agree; the more memory and CPU you save for your applications, the better it is. And if you still want to use KDE and GNOME tools, because they are convenient for you, you can use them under XFce, as its window manager is supposed to be compatible with these applications, too.

Q: XFce3 -- could it be your new desktop environment?

A: If you are looking for an alternative to KDE or GNOME, I strongly recommend investigating XFce3. It's small and efficient. It's functional and attractive. And now, it's 100% GPL software. Olivier has just completed an upgrade to the XFce main page. It includes links for downloading mirrors and the HTML on-line manual for XFce3.

Hopefully, all of the distributions will start shipping XFce as an optional desktop environment. It would be even better if at least one of the distributions would ship XFce3 as the default option. The Free Software community is famous for giving users a choice. XFce3 is now a fantastic choice for people who want a free option other than KDE or GNOME. By shipping XFce3 as a default desktop, perhaps one of the smaller, more up-and-coming distributions could make itself stand out from the KDE/GNOME crowd. XFce is a natural fit for any distribution trying to make itself known as a faster, lighter-weight Linux option.

In any case, XFce3 is worth a look.

XFce3 Resources

Olivier Fourdan's XFce3 home page, with the download section and on-line manual. Available are sources and pre-compiled platforms for Linux and other platforms.

The GIMP Tool Kit home page, with important information about this free library.

Special thanks go to Chuck Mead of Moongroup Consulting, who hosts and maintains XFCE.org and the XFce Mailing List. Highly recommended whether you are a novice or expert user. To subscribe, email xfce-list-request@xfce.org with the word "subscribe" (no quotes) in the subject line. Chuck Mead is also a board member of the Linux Professional Institute.

Copyright © 1999, Norman M. Jacobowitz
Published in Issue 43 of Linux Gazette, July 1999