Enlightenment—the Next Generation of Linux Desktops

The soon-to-be-released version of Enlightenment, E17, offers a lightweight, yet stunning, alternative to KDE and GNOME.

Do you remember the first time you saw the phenomenally successful “Get a Mac” ad campaign? The American ads feature actor Justin Long as the friendly, calm and casual Mac, paired with funny-man John Hodgman as the uptight, insecure and nerdy PC. And, the ads always begin the same way: “Hi...I'm a Mac, and I'm a PC.” The obvious intent of each personification is to show that the Mac resembles a more youthful Steve Jobs, and the PC closely resembles Bill Gates. It's brilliant marketing. The gist of the ads is this: PCs are prone to malware of all types and are difficult to use, and the Mac is not only easy to use, but it's also safe and secure. For those who switch to a Mac, all their problems will disappear. The target audience for this campaign is not the avid PC user but rather those who use a PC because they are unaware of other options. And, this message has been extremely effective, with Mac sales increasing a whopping 12% at the end of fiscal year 2006—that's a total of 1.3 million new Mac users.

So, why is the “Get a Mac” campaign so successful? Because the ads utilize a technique known as framing, where the viewer's perception is manipulated through selective information. In this case, the ads support a framed dualism where the viewer's presented choices are only PC or Mac. No other choices (although obviously they exist) are mentioned. This leads the viewer to think the Mac is better than the PC for a multitude of reasons, each highlighted by the various ads. And, who wouldn't want to be more like the hip Justin Long?

We Linux users are thrust into an unspoken dualism of our own. Through the various flame wars pitting the KDE desktop over GNOME, the major distributions choosing sides and Linux founder Linus Torvalds throwing his weight behind KDE, it may appear to newbie Linux users or prospective users that Linux is a dualistic system. You choose either KDE or GNOME. Unlike the dualism shown in the Mac ads, both KDE and GNOME have good qualities. No one desktop reigns supreme. They both utilize the same Linux kernel, and both are equally successful.

Lost in the smokescreen of the desktop wars are the lesser-known desktops and window managers of which the lightweight Xfce desktop and the Enlightenment window manager are a part. This article focuses on Enlightenment, primarily the new and improved E17 (formerly known as DR17, because it's a developer release still in beta). Created in 1997, Enlightenment, hereafter referred to as E, originally was based on the FVWM window manager. Since then, it has forked out on its own and no longer shares borrowed code from FVWM or any other window manager or desktop. This lays precedent to the claim of E's developers that E17 is at the forefront of the next generation of desktops. However, the word desktop conjures up thoughts of KDE and GNOME, but that is not what is meant by “next generation”. Rather, E is a desktop shell.

Desktop shell means an entity that sits somewhere between a minimal window manager and a full-featured desktop experience (like KDE or GNOME). For this reason, E's developers state that E is not intended to compete with either of those desktops. Instead, E is a desktop shell, combining a window manager with a file manager and configuration utilities. This new structure “will provide integration between files and your environment in a seamless manner while encompassing a graphically rich and flexible architecture”.

Figure 1. E's Very Useful Task Bar—an Essential Part of E17

E is possible because of the exclusive EFL (Enlightenment Foundation Libraries) written on behalf of E17. Parts of EFL are stable—like the newly updated Eet, a data encoding, decoding and storage library, which has been granted a 1.0 status. However, most of the coding is not yet complete, which places E17 in beta, rendering the system not completely stable as a desktop. Still, many users are choosing E17, thanks to its amazing ability to resurrect older PCs and bring systems with as little as 100MHz CPUs and 64MB of RAM to life again. Plus, E17 provides much-needed eye candy, with dazzling 2-D effects, to these older PCs—effects that would use a large amount of system resources through Compiz Fusion. No special 3-D graphics cards are needed for these effects on E. It's all in the EFL code.

In addition, EFL enables the potential for animated themes, animated boot screens, virtual desktops (up to 24) with separate animated backgrounds and more. Menus and borders are equally animated—or they can be if the theme allows—making E17 a unique experience.

In fact, that very uniqueness could be its potential downfall. Because E is not like anything else, users probably will encounter a short learning curve when using the desktop—figuring out where things are placed, how to summon the menu and how to configure various desktop elements. At first, one of the most disturbing features for me was calling up the menu by right-clicking my mouse on the desktop canvas. It takes a little getting used to, but after a while, it becomes second nature. It's the little things like this, the eccentricities of E, that seem awkward at first.

E17 noticeably lacks a stable file manager. As I mentioned earlier, the E developers melded the window manager with the file manager and configuration utilities, resulting in the next generation of desktop shells. Without the file manager, which is under heavy development, E is nothing more than a window manager. So, those distributions using E17 are integrating alternate file managers atop E to bridge this hole. Once the E file manager (EFM) is stable enough for everyday usage, it too will be configurable with eye candy equivalent in style to the rest of E. You will be able to search your files like any other file manager, with visual thumbnails that open into the application of your choice.

Other elements of E still on the plate include engage, the Mac OS X look-alike task bar (usable); entice, an image viewer; express, E's instant-messaging client; elation, a DVD-player GUI; embrace, an e-mail checker; elinguish, a BitTorent client; and several other components.

Almost everything about E is configurable. E includes a configuration panel allowing you to change many features, such as the wallpaper, theme, fonts, screen resolution, power settings, mouse and keyboard settings and more. This is nothing exceptional. I'm merely pointing out that E resembles a desktop with configuration options like KDE and GNOME. Clearly E is intended to be more than a simple window manager resting above a desktop foundation like frosting on a cake. E is both cake and frosting, but the cake still is being whipped together.

Another useful configuration option for E17 is the ability to change the language on the fly. Twenty languages currently are supported, including English, French, Russian, Korean, Chinese and Japanese. And, there is no need to restart the X server to switch between languages. It's instant.

E also includes the ability to add or remove little applications called modules. E's modules are similar to KDE's SuperKaramba or the Mac dashboard, adding functionalities like weather, calendars, volume control, temperature monitor, CPU frequency widget, battery monitor (for laptops), clock and more. The sky's the limit for future development of additional modules. And, selected modules appear in real time. There is no need to restart X or press a special combination of buttons to view them. It will be interesting to see the many modules that develop once E17 is officially released as a 1.0.

The question remains, is E17 ready for a standalone desktop? Probably not for business purposes, but it can be quite useful personally. Although E can crash, most crashes are not system-related, so whenever an application crashes, it simply can be closed down and restarted. This can and does happen occasionally, and these minor inconveniences should be worked out in later releases.

There are a few simple ways to try E17. If you are running Ubuntu, there is a method from the user forums where you can install E to be one of the choices available at boot. However, post-installation, you will be missing pertinent files that enable every feature to work properly. For that reason, you might want to try a distribution from a live CD with everything tweaked to work. Using E17 as a window manager above either GNOME or KDE does not provide the full extent of E's power. Besides, this sort of defeats the purpose of resurrecting older equipment. If you install E as a window manager, you lose its power and speed. Yes, E is very fast—think Xfce on steroids.

Tutorials for installing E17 exist for Ubuntu, Fedora, Gentoo and Arch Linux. If you are interested in running E17 as a window manager, refer to the user forums for these distributions for directions. Instructions for Ubuntu are at ubuntuforums.org/showthread.php?t=97199&highlight=E17+cvs, and instructions for Fedora and Mandrake users are at sps.nus.edu.sg/~didierbe.

As mentioned previously, the best way to try E17 is by choosing a live CD with E pre-installed. There are a few from which to choose, and I briefly highlight each here. The following desktop experiences range from a lesser extreme, where E is moderately used, to a full extreme, where E is used exclusively.



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Anonymous's picture

I've been trying to create a linux tutorial to present at my university but I never had any thing to base it on. This might be a good outline for it.


Misafir's picture

Good UI is the art of making a usable / intuitive system.

Abiword or Emacs anyone?

grabur's picture

I was introduced to Linux as a way to recycle and sustain old hardware. I was excited at the thought of a Linux Desktop. FVWM and TWM won me for the speed. KDE and Gnome were slow and unstable by comparison.

All I want is a stable, snappy platform. I don't even care for icons. In OSX th e control panel is two clicks through the menu (one if you place it on the dock). Sub menus in my book are a no no. With Gnome, I have to click around menus while waiting for some naff effect. Hate it.

Drop shadows. How crude.

If you are using old hardware, and I think that means 450 MHZ < 128 MB Ram, you won't get on that well (believe me) with Linux distros (bar Damn Small and Puppy), I've tried. Opera is the lightest full blown browser. Firefox is huge, Openoffice is Massive.

What have fast cpus and massive GFX cards given us? All that computational power for not alot in my opinion(though you can rebuild a system fast.)

How about a fast terminal based environment to work in instead? Could we not build Ncurses apps and style them, like you dress a webpage with CSS?

We don't want eye candy at the expense of usability. I only have Compiz on in Gnome for the inverse screen feature and zoom. Most websites I invert the colours because the white blinds me. And in Opera, I just turn it all off, and go for high contrast, it's much nicer.

The great thing about the early window managers, is that they offered the chance for something different, something innovative. Gates talked about a 3d Desktop as a concept early on. Games, Phones and PDAs offer decent, different, intuitive desktops - or should I say launchers?

OSX gets it right with it's subtlety. I want to be able to launch an app and switch between programs with speed. I want to be able to rotate and add and remove displays quickly. I can't help thinking the mouse is useless compared with typed text and keyboard shortcuts (Many new GUI based programs forget to even add them.)

Don't get me wrong E17 sounds good, but why is it faster, could Gnome or KDE learn some of these tricks? How fast is the CPU in an iphone, how fast does it render? What is so different between Gnome and FVWM? Is the bloat and lag hidden in Multi Processing, SVG graphics, XML Parsing, Unicode and i18n?

2D effects sound like a CPU killer, isn't it better to use GFX cards for transparency and scaling if they are there?

It annoys me that the Linux desktop appears to play catch up in some areas, while Windows just appears to edge itself towards a cliff. For example you can't even cut and paste, drag and drop consistently between apps in Linux (though it's got better). Win98 you could do all that, and there was also the web based (active) desktop. Yes you laugh, but watch as Google re-imagines that.

Good UI is the art of making a usable / intuitive system. A Sprinkle of eye candy on top is fine. Gnome is great, as it's stable and no frills, though they could steal a few ideas from Apple. If the admin programs in Windows were all grouped together into a panel (like Win 3.1) and I could get to notepad quickly, I might use it.

I know you can tailor XYZ desktop and distro to do what you like. Those of us without much time, who hop between, and maintain computers, would probably rather a great Desktop that just worked out the box. I guess that needs to suit everyman: the power user, the noob and the ones who like shiny things.

Xfce any one

Beloved's picture

Well if you working with older hard ware and KDE and GNOME arnet cutting it for your old machine, have you looked into Xfce. Its built to run on older hardware alot easier. If your an Ubuntu kind of person check out Xubuntu. Its got it built in already and should work really well. If your not much a fan i would look into Damn Small Linux. It also is built for older machines so you wont want to chunk your pc out of the Empire State building window everytime it crashes becuase it shouldnt. Ive heard good things about these things so why not check it out?


grabur's picture

Yes tried Xfce.

A few years back I worked on a project recycling old hardware into internet kiosks, for a community centre.

In the end after trying out various distros, (300mhz machines), I ended up not using a window manager, and hacked an install of Firefox and Suse. Suse because it was great at recognising hardware.

The landscape moves so fast. You could now do the above using SLAX, XFCE, Firefox and probably a Firefox Plugin, I had to hack firefox quite a bit to make it work.

I have also worked for an environmental organisation, and have endeavoured to recycle as much old hardware as possible, and cut costs. So I've looked at many, many distros.

I tried Zenwalk on an older laptop and a workstation; I'd recommend it.

But going back to the post. Is E dramatically different, or is it all in the aesthetics? Wouldn't these rob the CPU of precious cycles on old hardware?

Enlightenment Sucks

Max's picture

Any Mouse based window GUI that doesnt have a simple way to change the mouse button from right handed to left hander use, is not very enlightened, (oh yea? go ahead take your mousepad and try your left hand with it - takes about 5 minutes before I shift-alt-backspace back to ubuntu) oh BTW their forums stink too, not very open to give feedback, so it smells of elitist coding. Which means, they really do not want feedback from new users, and they think that their way is the only way to develop the desktop. the left handed mouse button thing is the perfect example, you have to rewrite a config file to change it.

Um if you just go to the

Anonymous's picture

Um if you just go to the conf panel you can select left or right handed mouse.

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