Enlightenment—the Next Generation of Linux Desktops
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”.
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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