Desktop Environment

Have An In-depth Understanding of Desktop Environment

The Desktop Environment is a graphical user interface that allows the user to manage and frequently access services and features of an operating system. It is a default interface offered by almost all modern operating systems today, which include Mac, Linux, Windows and others. This kind of interface was actually developed as a replacement for the command-line interface, which was mainly utilized in various legacy operating systems like Unix and DOS. However, users may still have the command-line access for several system-level services that are not accessible through a desktop environment.

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In computing, DE or desktop environment refers to the implementation of the desktop metaphor that is made of a bundle of programs that run on the top of the operating system of a computer, sharing a similar graphic user interface. The desktop environment was commonly seen on personal computers until mobile computing has risen. Desktop graphical user interfaces help every user to access and edit their files in an easier and simpler manner, while they often don’t provide access to all of the services and features that can be found within the underlying operating system. Rather, the traditional CLI or command-line interface is still being used when full control over the operating system is needed.

A desktop environment usually consists of desktop widgets, wallpapers, folders, windows, icons and toolbars. A graphical user interface might also deliver drag and drop feature and other valuable functionalities that will make the desktop metaphor complete. This interface seeks to become an intuitive and more beneficial way for users to interact with the computer with the use of concepts that are similar to the ones used when interacting with the physical world, like the windows and buttons.

Although the term “desktop environment” initially described a style of user interfaces that follows the desktop metaphor, this has also come to describe those programs that realize the metaphor itself. Such usage has been made popular by the K Desktop Environment and the Common Desktop Environment.

The Operation

On a system that provides a desktop environment, a window manager, along with the applications written with the use of a widget toolkit, is generally responsible for the things that the user sees. The window manager will support the user interactions with the environment. The toolkit, on the other hand, will provide developers a software library essential for applications with a unified behaviour and look. A window system generally interfaces directly with the principal libraries and operating system. This is necessary to provide support for keyboards, pointing devices and graphical hardware. In general, the window manager will run on top of the window system. Even though the window system may deliver some window management functionality, such functionality is still regarded as a part of the window manager, which just happens to have been delivered by the windowing system.

Applications made with a certain window manager in mind often use a windowing toolkit that is provided with the window manager or operating system in general. A windowing toolkit will provide application access to widgets that enable the user to graphically interact with the application in a consistent way.

The History of Desktop Environment and its Common Usage

Xerox created the very first desktop environment, and in the 1960s, it was sold with the Xerox Alto. The Alto was commonly regarded by Xerox to be a personal computer for office tasks. However, it did not succeed in the marketplace due to very high price tag and poor marketing. With Lisa, Apple also introduced a desktop environment on a very affordable personal computer. However, just the same with the first one, it also failed in the market.

The desktop metaphor has been popular to many technical users because of the original Macintosh from Apple in 1984 on commercial PCs. In 2014, the most famous desktop environments are actually the descendants of such earlier environments, which include the Aero environment utilized in Windows 8 and 7, as well as Aqua environment utilized in OS X.

The proprietary desktop environments that are included with these great operating systems are relatively more unalterable and fixed, as compared to the X-based desktop environments that can be obtained for Unix-like operating systems, such as FreeBSD and Linux. In addition, they are equipped with highly integrated flawless designs that are made to deliver consistent customer experience across installations.

Running Desktop Environments

It is important to note that a desktop environment is separate from an operating system itself. Therefore, you have many choices beyond what comes with the Linux distro.

One of the best things about desktop environments is that you can possibly install more than one on a similar machine, and choose whatever you would like to use every time you log in.

Every desktop environment comes with some valuable programs of its own as well, so when you install more than one on a similar machine, you will notice that you have some extras in your menu. Every desktop environment has also its own applications that can download.

Although you can use an application in any environment in general, many people choose the use the applications that are specifically tailored to the environment that they are using because of the tighter integration they will have with the desktop.

For instance, the users of GNOME prefer to use the Pidgin as their clients, while the users of KDE opt to use Kopete. With this, particular apps are designed with the GTK toolkit, but are usually used across some other desktop environments because they are the best at what they do.

However, keep in mind that in the end, it is still up to you, but you have to remember that the biggest advantage of how desktop environments work is that you can always completely customize the way you use your system.

Desktop Environments Suitable for the X Window System

When it comes to the systems that run in X Window System, which often include the Unix-family systems like the BSDs, formal UNIX distributions and GNU/Linux, desktop environment are actually much more customizable and dynamic in order to meet the needs of the users.

In such context, a desktop environment often consists of many different separate components that work independently. They also interact with each other in order to provide the feel and look, as well as the functionality of the desktop environment. Such components include a file manager like Dolphin or Files, a window manager like KWin and Mutter, a set of graphical themes, along with toolkits like Qt and GTK+ and libraries to manage the desktop. These individual modules can actually be independently configured and exchanged to suit the users. However, it is important to remember that most of the desktop environments deliver a default configuration that works effectively without much user setup.

The fundamental part of a desktop environment is the Window Manager. It creates a particular way for the application windows to present themselves to users. It manages the different application windows, monitoring and identifying which ones are open and delivering features to be able to switch between them.

Several window managers, including Window Maker, ROX Desktop, IceWM and Fluxbox, contain fairly sparse desktop environment elements, like the integrated spatial file manager, whereas others like wmii and evilwm do not offer those elements.

Another vital component of a desktop environment is the file manager that manages folders or files and then presents them in a manner that users find more convenient. It delivers file operations such as viewing, moving or copying, deleting and changing permission. Desktop environments often offer utilities to display icons on the desktop, set screensavers and wallpapers, as well as perform various administrative tasks.

Not all of the part of a desktop environment’s program code has effects that are directly visible to users, as some of it may actually be low-level program code. For instance, KDE provides the so-called KIO slaves that give every user an access to a wide range of different virtual devices. Note that such I/O slaves cannot be obtained outside the KDE Environment.

At first, CDE was available as the proprietary solution. However, it has never been known on Linux systems because of licensing restrictions and cost. In the year 1996, the KDE was declared, followed by the declaration of GNOME in 1997. In year 1996, a smaller project known as Xfce was also founded, which focuses on modularity and speed, just similar with LXDE that started in year 2006.

In a comparison made between X Window System desktop environments, the differences have been highlighted. KDE and GNOME were often seen as the dominant solutions, and are still usually installed on Linux systems by default. These provide a lot of services and benefits to:

  • translators – both GNOME and KDE are available in many different languages
  • programmers – provide human interface guidelines, a programming environment and a set of great standard APIs
  • ergonomics specialists – offer an opportunity to help in the simplification of the working environment
  • artists – deliver a valuable environment where artists can share their talents
  • developers of third-party apps – a references environment essential for integration
  • every user – a suite of significant applications and a comprehensive desktop environment. Such applications include a web browser, file manager, address book, system preferences application, photo manager, email clients and multimedia player.

KDE obtained maturity, together with GNOME in the early 2000s. The projects of their creator focused more on bringing new innovations and advances to the next prime releases of both GNOME and KDE respectively. Even through struggling for broadly the same goals to achieve, KDE and GNOME have differences, especially in the way they deal with the use ergonomics.

The KDE encourages apps to interoperate and integrate. It is also very customizable and consists of a lot of complex features and functionalities, while trying to build sensible defaults. On the other hand, the GNOME is more prescriptive. It concentrated more on the finer details of significant tasks and overall simplification. For that reason, each one is able to attract a different developer community and user. Technically, you can find a lot of technologies common to the entire Unix-like desktop environments, most evidently the X Windows System.

As both the KDE and GNOME concentrate their efforts on high-performances computers, those users of less powerful computers usually opt for alternative desktop environments that are primarily made for low-performance systems. The most popularly used lightweight desktop environments today include the Xfce and LXDE, which both utilize GTK+ that is the same underlying toolkit used by GNOME.

For quite a long time, KDE and GNOME have truly enjoyed the status of the most famous desktop environments in the industry. However, later, four other valuable desktop environments have gained popularity. With this, GNOME introduces a new interface principle with its version three in April 2011, while a famous Linux distribution, Ubuntu started to introduce its own latest desktop environment, the Unity. Other users choose to keep the GNOME 2’s conventional interface concept, and due to this, they either migrated to Cinnamon and MATE that cater to their requirements, or switched to Xfce.

The Common Desktop Environment Examples

The Microsoft Window’s built-in interface is the most popular desktop environment on personal computers. Luna was its title in Windows XP and Aero from Windows Vista onward. Another popular is Aqua, which included with the Mac OS X of Apple.

There are also a number of existing desktop environments available today, which include, but not limited to the following:

  • GEM
  • EDE
  • CDE
  • Mezzo
  • Jesktop
  • IRIX Interactive Desktop
  • XFast
  • Sun’s Java Desktop System
  • Project Looking Glass
  • Xito
  • UDE
  • ROX Desktop

There also exists the FVWM-Crystal, consisting of a very powerful configurations for the FVWM window manager and a theme, creating a ‘construction kit’ necessary for establishing a desktop environment.

It is also worth to note the Amiga approach to desktop environment. There is also an experimental desktop environment, which is the BumpTop Project. The main objective of this desktop environment is to be able to replace the 2D paradigm with a 3D implementation. With this, it would be easy to manipulate documents across a virtual table.

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