LXer Feature: 19-Oct-2011
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the Elder Gods of the Digital Universe decreed that the Icon would rule the World of Desktops, just as it had dominated the Land of the Hand-held since the dawn of time. No matter that on a giant monitor the Firefox appeared at nearly life size, all desktop items were to be stripped of verbal clues to the nature of their meaning.
To this decree the citizens of the State of Microsoft responded with their customary grumbles about the dictatorial nature of their government, but plodded dutifully along in lockstep. The inhabitants of the Apple Garden actually applauded the change and gave praise to their Great Leader for beautifying the walls of their garden yet again.
Even among the usually combative throng that populates Linuxville there were those who were inclined to accept the Desktop by Default. Though they disputed mightily among themselves as they always did, many of them actually tried to see something good in the New Order, and found a feature here and there which they could still alter a bit to gratify their need for a sense of control.
And one scruffy little community that had formed on the very outermost outskirts of Linuxville found a way to get around the Cosmic Decree entirely and keep the age-old Desktop Tradition alive. They called themselves LXDE.
Storybook matters aside, I really don't understand how the leaderships of three fiercely independent, highly competitive operating systems abruptly and simultaneously began to pursue a single goal, the total iconification of the desktop so that its screen would resemble an over-sized phone. It is especially puzzling since the change apparently requires a reduction, rather than an expansion, of the capabilities of the desktop.
I am particularly amazed that so many Linux distros have been swept up in this tsunami of icon-only desktops. Whether it is Unity or Gnome 3 is utterly irrelevant, because both have embraced the new idea and rejected all possibility of alternatives or even some form of compromise. But this is Linux we're talking about. This is a system that was built on freedom and has never accepted arbitrary control. That's what makes the recent developments so shocking.
There are choices in Linux, of course, and the range of choice depends simply on your level of expertise and your willingness to work at it. The less expertise, the more work – and at my level I really thought I'd never get to the point of being able to do the job. What I didn't realize at first was that somebody had already done most of the really hard work and built a desktop manager even I could use to shape my system the way I like. I call it The Little Desktop That Could: LXDE.
LXDE has been an option for some time now on most distros, but for new-to-intermediate users like me it is easiest to use if it is presented as the master desktop of an entire integral system. I got started in Linux with Ubuntu (9.04) and apart from general distro-hopping I've mostly stayed with it. I don't claim it's the best, it's just what I'm most familiar with. My ticket to escape from the Unity desktop came when a reasonably stable release of Lubuntu tackled the 11.04 version of its parent Ubuntu. Here was a distro that even I could shape the way I liked it.
The Lubuntu distro in its basic form is not what I am looking for. I'm not a fan of the minimalist Abiword that it contains, because I much prefer the far more powerful LibreOffice Writer. I have no interest in the whole set of Penguin Solitaires that ships with Lubuntu, but I often waste endless time listening to Pandora and playing the visually more attractive AisleRiot solitaires. I like a totally icon-free desktop, but I never found a visual effect in Compiz that I didn't love to play with. In short, I have a totally irrational but exact idea of a desktop I find personally desirable, and I'm willing to work for it.
LXDE can do the job, but it takes a bit of getting used to. The menu looks pretty sparse at first and it only cascades one level, but there is a lot of flexibility there. My first move is always to the Synaptic Package Manager, where I can install LibreOffice (Writer only, none of the other parts), AisleRiot, Compiz, and anything else I think of, and at the same time get rid of what I think I'll never use (I can always change my mind and put it back later).
The end result of this? There is no end result – that is the real magic of it. You can make a system that is light on its feet and faster than you'd ever think your machine can work, and then in a fit of productivity turn it into a huge complex that contains everything including the digital kitchen sink. And if you find yourself missing an icon here or there, you can have those too.
How long this escape route will remain open is hard to say. Already Synaptic in Lubuntu 11.10 steered me to the newer Compiz version 0.9.x, which is apparently a bit more resource-hungry than the previous one. This time rotating the Sphere or Cylinder strains the capabilities of my oldest machine and its graphics card. Still, the basic Ubuntu 11.04 in its un-embellished state was already near the limit for that machine, so I feel I can count on a few more cycles of upgrades before I have to strip that old box of all its graphics toys.
I know this isn't the kind of article that usually shows up on LXer, but I don't think it hurts to let you Movers and Shakers of the community know that there are a lot of us out there who know just enough of computing to be able to appreciate the work you folks have done. You've let us learn the rudiments of your trade, and in the process made it possible for us to create our own little digital worlds just the way we want. Thank you!