The Grand Unified Desktop

How developers and distributions can make diverse software work together better.

In December 2002, I wrote an article for the Linux Journal web site ( about the new Bluecurve desktop for Red Hat 8.0, which includes programs from both GNOME and KDE. I received a lot of feedback, including many suggestions on how to write desktop applications that would cooperate with applications written using other toolkits and work well in any desktop environment.

The Problem

An integrated desktop is one whose components work together, wherever they come from, and one that never forces the end user to do the same thing many times. The current default solutions, like GNOME and KDE, often present limits if one tries to mix pieces.

Communication between graphical clients, from simple drag-and-drop to the handling of icons, menus, metadata such as URLs and, in general, window-level interactions, work out of the box only for some subsets of clients and window managers. The same applies to centrally managed and good-looking fonts.

And what about localization? How many programs are still a pain to use with a non-English language or keyboard?

KDE and GNOME are two collections of applications that seem to solve many of these problems. But are toolkit-centric, all-or-nothing approaches the easiest to maintain? What if somebody creates an even better toolkit? What about applications from other toolkits or the whole best-of-breed philosophy so natural among free software users?

In other words, what is the best way to develop that killer application for your favorite desktop, other people's favorite desktops and the desktop of the future?

The Solutions

Re-inventing the wheel may be silly, but it's much less silly than inventing a wheel that needs a new road. Consequently, even if there already are 20 chat clients for Linux, code another one if it feels good; however, make sure that it interoperates with what already exists. Start with common sense, and use the right free standards and protocols. Afterward, check that whatever toolkit or library you choose respects them too. Many top developers already are fully aware that this is the winning approach in the long term. GNOME developer Havoc Pennington wrote, “Interactions between applications and the runtime environment really need to take place via documented, toolkit-independent protocols and file formats.” Let's look at how to do this in practice.

File Formats

The most interesting thing in the office formats field, but also for many other types of structured data storage, probably is the work of the Oasis Group. The Oasis file formats are being developed starting with the ones, so developers will have an easier time. But every program, from Emacs to KOffice to the next word processor, can use them.

Along these lines, there's no need to create yet another bookmark format. XBEL (XML Bookmark Exchange Language) is a bookmark interchange format that Galeon and Konqueror already use.

The idea of an interchange format is valid for other configuration files too. UNIX and Linux still are following the toolbox approach: no mammoths, but a lot of little pieces, each doing one thing well. One practical consequence of this is that all the applications doing the same thing will need to know and store the same set of parameters, or very similar ones.

Sticking to the chat client example, the really silly thing would be to have one configuration file for Qt_chat_app, one for GTK_chat_app, one for MyToolKit_chat_app and so on. There is a fundamental difference between a file and the way it is created or updated. Using different editing methods are okay (vi, a control panel, etc.), but in the long term, what really matters is having a single ~/.chatrc file with every existing chat client using it and not complaining if the settings changed from another chat client. Usenet newsreaders already use the standard .newsrc file. Until a standard emerges for your category of application, an acceptable compromise is to have your new program load the settings of other similar clients when it first starts and use them as defaults.

Guessing the MIME type of a file from its name is an action performed looking at a MIME database. This can be unified too, so that every desktop and program is guaranteed to read the same data; has a draft specification of how to do this.

Graphical Interfaces

Many people say that X is showing its age and point to ambitious, far-reaching projects like Fresco. Even without aiming so high, however, a lot can be done to make sure that any mix of clients and window managers behave properly. A starting point for approaching this kind of problem is the site, especially its standards section.

Remember what we just said about applications of the same type sharing the same set of configuration parameters? We were referring to the core functionality, but the same approach can be used with all GUI-level settings, in all the components of your desktop. Things like background color or the double-click timeout are needed by all programs and still can be configured once and for all by each user, regardless of the particular mix of toolkits he or she needs. The X Resource Manager was not designed to be changed interactively and merges what is written in ~/.Xdefaults with data from other sources, so it is not the right back end for a GUI configuration tool. Go for the Xsetting specification instead, which is being designed to solve this and other problems.

Let's go one step further. What comes after the internal configuration of each class of applications and the way they appear and react to local user actions? The graphical interaction with other applications and the window manager.

Dragging and dropping text from any window to another one already is possible, theoretically at least, if all interested parties follow the XDND protocol. This currently is supported not only by GTK+ and Qt, but also by script-oriented toolkits like Tk and Perl/Tk and by relative outsiders like FOX.

Figure 1 shows how XDND works. When an application must send something to another one, it issues the proper toolkit call. The toolkit sends everything, through the XDND protocol, to the other toolkit, and the answer is passed back to the program in the same way.

Figure 1. XDND, the Drag-and-Drop Protocol for X

The source must declare all the MIME types it supports to its toolkit. These can be text in many formats, images or filenames. The target must declare which formats it recognizes inside that list. In this way, formatted text can be passed between two word processors without losing font, color and so on. At the same time, passing a paragraph from, say, KOffice to vi will lose formatting but keep the text intact.

When drag-and-drop doesn't work, the problem is almost always inside the application's XS, which didn't declare all the MIME-types, used only custom ones or misused either the toolkit or the protocol in some similar way. Practically speaking, it means that bug reports must be filed against the applications, not the toolkits or XDND.

Other interactions between X clients, or between clients and the window manager, must follow the ICCCM (Inter-Client Communication Conventions Manual) and the Extended Window Manager Hints, EWMH for short, formerly known as the NetWM specification. It should be noted that even the good old X clipboard is fully described in the ICCCM. Detailed explanations of how to handle this are provided by Keith Packard and Jamie Zawinski.

The second window interaction standard works on top of ICCCM. It deals with all the window management features not specified in its predecessor, because they started to appear after it. EWMH originally was meant to be a replacement of what was then the GNOME window manager specification, but it is designed correctly in that it can be implemented and supported in any desktop environment. GNOME 2 and KDE 3 both support EWMH, so any application conforming to it can be expected to play nicely inside both environments or with any of their components. Developers willing to have a more precise, yet quick feel of what EWMH is supposed to do may want to look at KDE's netwm.h.


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