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Linux desktop environments

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Linux desktop environments

The term Desktop Linux refers to all the software components that build a graphical user interface, that is designed for usage with a desktop computer and also devices, that offer identical human interface devices, such as Laptops.

Most, if not all, such GUIs implement the WIMP paradigm. Their main human interface devices for the input are a pointing device and the computer keyboard and for the visual output one or multiple computer monitors as well as loudspeakers/Headset for the acoustic output. Supplemental HID, such as a refreshable braille display, a touchscreen or speech recognition are possible.

Further peripheral devices, such as printers and scanners, that are commonly used in conjunction with desktop computers, especially in an office, must also be supported by drivers and software applications, but these are not part of the UI. Implementations of APIs, such as Mesa 3D for OpenGL or SDL for input and sound output are not a necessity on a desktop computer used in an office, but for Linux gaming.

Some of the software is in the process of being modified and augmented to be suitable to support a touch user interface, so that it can be used on e.g. Smartphones, that come with only a small diameter touchscreen as in- and output device. Most commons smartphones of today have enough resources, that the actual programs do not need to be modified, but only their UI. For example, KDE Plasma Workspaces is a framework meant to ease the creation of multiple UI.

Most of the available Linux distributions are oriented toward desktop usage, and specialized distributions, that do not contain these packages, are the minority.


Almost all Linux distributions are build around a package management system. The entire free and open-source software packages in the repositories can be downloaded and installed with one mouse click. A digital signature guarantees that the software package was not modified after its creation by the package maintainer. This transfers the burden the maintenance and stability of the entire operating system from the user to the package and distribution maintainers. Common tasks, such as installing and de-installing programs or updating the entire operating system, require minimal effort or knowledge on the user side. The package management system automatically tracks and installs updates as they become available, resulting in a very high security level. This is very good for server installations and also for office usage.

But this closed ecosystem has also its downsides on home computer, where users want to install a newer version of a software, or one that is not contained at all in the repository of the Linux distribution. Ingo Molnár describes the core problem of the Linux desktop being it not being free enough. Due to the package management system the Linux platform rather implements the Cathedral then the Bazaar approach (from The Cathedral and the Bazaar):[1][2]


Lennart Poettering:[3] Template:Cquote

An example could be the video game GNU build system this is not a big deal, but without the necessity to have to compile some programs, maybe the Linux desktop would have a higher adoption rate.

A completely different example is proprietary software. Here the source code is not available to the end-user, so only the developers can compile (and package) the program. Doing so for several Linux distribution is en effort, and even then, there is no guarantee, that the program will run on all 600+ Linux distributions.

Software architecture

There is no "one" Linux desktop, but rather there is a pool of free and open-source software from which desktop environments and Linux distributions select components with which they construct a GUI implementing some more or less strict design guide. GNOME, for example, has its Human interface guidelines as a design guide, which gives the Human-Machine Interface an important role, not just when doing the graphical design, but also when looking at people with disabilities, and even when looking at security.[4]

Invisible components

The invisible components have to be simple enough, so that they are and remain maintainable, bug-free, efficient and easy to develop further. They also have to offer authors extensible possibilities to write applications on top of them.

  • The C standard library for the Linux kernel which offers programs APIs to the Linux kernel; by far the most poplar one is GNU C Library but there are a couple of alternatives, such as e.g. uClibc which targets embedded devices; (the C standard library is actually that elemental to the entire operating system that it cannot be considered part of the DE, yet components of the DE extensively make use of it, so it is mentioned here. It is also noteworthy because Android is based on libbionic, and some device drivers written for Android specifically can only be used with the help of libhybris.)
  • A non-obvious but quite central role have the programs hosted by, such as D-Bus or PulseAudio; both big DEs, GNOME and KDE SC, include them, each offering graphical front-ends written using the corresponding toolkit (GTK+ or Qt).
  • A display server which for the longest time has been communicating in the X11 display server protocol with its clients; prominent software talking X11 are the X.Org Server and Xlib. Frustration over the cumbersome X11 core protocol, and especially over its numerous extensions, has led to the creation of a new display server protocol: Wayland.
  • window managers, more precisely X window managers.

Visible components

The immediate graphical shell/graphical user interface/workspace is the software component, that defines the interface with the human. It should be designed conforming to some human interface guidelines, which take into account the available human interface devices (HIDs) to be used by both, people with and people without disabilities, to achieve the best possible workflow when interacting with the software. A marketing terms for workflow seem to be user experience.

The UI of a program like e.g. Nautilus or Audacious is not just determined by the employed widget toolkit but can additionally by influenced the chosen UI:

Linux kernel adaptations

The same way the Linux kernel can be adapted to run better on supercomputers, there are adaptations to make games and multimedia applications run more performant on it. A project concerning itself with this issue is called Liquorix[5][6]

Desktop environments

Linux offers many desktop alternatives. Common desktop environments include KDE, GNOME, Xfce, LXDE, and Cinnamon. These are collections of desktop programs, rather than bare bones window managers such as FVWM, IceWM amongst numerous others. These environments present a GUI using a desktop metaphor. All of these environments allow the user to set many personal preferences and to perform common system management tasks. The Compiz window manager expands upon the concept of having multiple desktops by rendering each of the user's two dimensional desktops on the surface of a three dimensional cube. The variety of desktop environments is sometimes criticized for splintering focus and creating incompatibilities; the project works on improving interoperability between the different environments.

All Linux desktop applications use the X Window System and thus benefit from features like networking (remote display) and quick mouse-only cut, copy, and paste. Mouse selected text is automatically copied, and it can then be pasted using a middle click, without the need to resort to use of the keyboard.[7]


Historically, UNIX and other Unix-like operating systems have been utilized on servers, mainframes, and workstations in corporate or scientific environments. Beginning in the late 90s, a few Linux distribution companies, such as MandrakeSoft, began to advertise their systems for low-end desktop computers.

History and criticism

KDE was the first advanced desktop environment, but it was controversial due to the then-proprietary Qt toolkit used.[8] GNOME was developed as an alternative due to licensing questions.[8] The two use a different underlying toolkit and thus involve different programming, and are sponsored by two different groups, German nonprofit KDE e.V. and the United States nonprofit GNOME Foundation.

As of April 2007, one journalist estimated that KDE had 65% of market share versus 26% for GNOME.[8] In January 2008, KDE 4 was released prematurely with bugs, driving users to GNOME.[9] GNOME 3, released in April 2011, was called an "unholy mess" by Linus Torvalds due to its controversial design changes.[10]

Dissatisfaction with GNOME 3 led to a fork, Cinnamon, which is developed primarily by Linux Mint developer Clement LeFebvre. This restores the more traditional desktop environment with marginal improvements.

The relatively well-funded distribution Ubuntu designed (and released in June 2011) another user interface called Unity which is radically different from the conventional desktop environment and has been criticized as having various flaws[11] and lacking configurability.[12] The motivation was a single desktop environment for desktops and tablets, although as of November 2012 Unity has yet to be used widely in tablets. However, the smartphone and tablet version of Ubuntu and its Unity interface was unveiled by Canonical Ltd in January 2013.

Year of Desktop Linux

Since at least 2000, articles declaring that "20XX will be the year of Linux on the desktop" or "year of the Linux desktop" (YoLD) have been published by a number of tech-related magazines and websites. This refers to an expected breakthrough in Linux adoption by business corporations and personal users. The reasons for these forecast gains include the installation of a Linux distribution on the desktops of workers for organizations or companies who may not be immediately or otherwise involved in the computing industry, or the acceleration of development for specific applications which find their greatest use on desktop Linux distributions. It can also refer to a breakthrough in the number of pre-installed Linux distributions on personal computers being sold by PC manufacturers such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard.[13][14][15][16][17]


The performance of Linux on the desktop has been a controversial topic, with at least one Linux kernel developer, Con Kolivas, accusing the Linux community of favouring performance on servers. He quit Linux development because he was frustrated with this lack of focus on the desktop, and then gave a 'tell all' interview on the topic.[18]

Other sources, such as mainstream press The Economist disagree with this assessment that there has not been enough focus on desktop Linux, saying in December 2007:

...Linux has swiftly become popular in small businesses and the home...That’s largely the doing of Gutsy Gibbon, the code-name for the Ubuntu 7.10 from Canonical. Along with distributions such as Linspire, Mint, Xandros, OpenSUSE and gOS, Ubuntu (and its siblings Kubuntu, Edubuntu and Xubuntu) has smoothed most of Linux’s geeky edges while polishing it for the desktop...It’s now simpler to set up and configure than Windows.[19]

Measuring adoption

Main article: Linux adoption

Measuring the adoption of Linux on the desktop is a difficult proposition and has caused controversy as to how many users there actually are.[20]

As Linux systems are typically downloaded, copied and distributed for free, the usual methods of tracking sales numbers do not apply in gauging numbers of Linux desktop users. This use of website counters to identify operating systems also does not produce reliable numbers, due to such factors as:[20]

  • individual websites do not attract a representative sample, due to their content.[20]
  • spoofing of addresses.[20]
  • problems tagging identification strings as to Linux or even distribution results in high numbers of "unknown operating system".[20]
  • identifying computers that operate from behind proxies.[20]
  • the multiplying effects of botnets which tend to create the illusion of more insecure PCs, running Windows systems.[20]
  • the fact that not all PCs are connected to the internet and used for web browsing.[20]
  • one download could result in none or whole site installations

See also

Free software portal


External links

de:Linux auf dem Desktop
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