On Minimalism

Posted by jayrfink on May 13, 2006 10:35 AM EDT
Systhread; By Jason (Jay) R Fink
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I get a lot of grief for using so called old window managers. I get a lot of grief for writing shell scripts as close to posix as I can (especially from lame sysadmins). I get a lot of grief for writing utils in anythng but bash. Well, for most of you - I do not think my personal answer to why I use C, Perl or sh-posix should be posted here. How about a look at minimalism from a pragmatic and practical point of view.

On Minimalism

A day does not go when, on almost every news site some mention of KDE, Gnome or some other desktop does not land a listing. In addition to the desktop environments available just the subject of the Linux[1] desktop makes it into online news daily. Open Source desktops and window managers are just one part of the question of minimalism. Is minimalism dead and does it even matter?

Cautionary Disclaimer

There is absolutely nothing wrong with KDE, GNOME, XFCE or the plethora of desktop environments and window managers available. Several windowing and desktop environments do very new and exciting things and they have their place. The question really is aimed at a particular crowd of users [2] who tend to stick to either older window managers or desktop environments.


Not all people who could be considered minimalists do so on purpose. In a nutshell, a few examples of minimal behavior towards operating systems in degrees are:

  • Practical
  • Comfort
  • Habit

And of course; all of the above.

Practical: A Shaker Approach to Systems [3]

The most motivated minimalist system user is probably one who does so for a specific reason. There are many hackers who prefer simpler window managers because they tend to be easier to configure, less intrusive and of course require/consume less resources. In many ways, the shaker approach makes sense for those who want or may need to be able to make hardware last longer.

Just Like ... : Comfort Level

There is never another experience like the first experience. Many users prefer to have things as close to what they are used to as possible. In the world of Open Source this means a lot of old software remains maintained because someone wants it - somewhere. Having legacy software maintained or even branched [4] is a good thing. There is an interesting juxtapose within the comfort level heuristic - many of the graphical applications that non open source users are used to have been duplicated within the open source community to accommodate the graphical user interface only crowd.

Old Hands: Habit

Many a CDE user would say that e17 is a bit much to get Unix work done. The one true shell of kshell users will go at great length to explain why bash is evil. The list goes on, why elvis is better than vim, vim better than nvi and vi is better than nvi. In some cases, it is simply a matter of habit. Habit differs from comfort in that most habit users never bother going to great lengths to customize their environment.

The Minimalist System

A minimalist approach is not limited to one system in particular. Instead a more generalized idea makes more sense. In general, a minimal system would be:

  • A small install base consisting of only the needed bits (or the smallest possible components of a given systems base install).
  • Only additional services required. The rest shut off.
  • A tuned kernel, preferably by source or dynamically via a sysctl or kernel-tune [5] interface.

How the end is met of course varies. A very clean approach is to simply install only a base system like NetBSD and use the pkgsrc

system to add on what is needed. In the Linux world, such minimal installs are generally hard to find; the Debian netinst image is a good starting point.

Are They Just Luddites?

No, absolutely not. A Luddite feels threatened by new ideas. A minimalist understands why there is no need for something but does understand why something may be needed, however,

not not by them. The quintessential difference between Luddism and Minimalism is this; a minimalist accepts and uses technology that enables them, a Luddite firmly believes a technology will do some sort of harm.


Some users expect a lot of flash in one form or the other. Some users could care less and are much more interested in getting it done. Some users just like what they like and that is all there is to it. Is minimalism dead? No. Is minimalism right or wrong in any form? No. Is keeping up on the bleeding edge of N? No.


  1. The desktop is not unique to Linux kernel based systems. Most if not all components developed for desktops that commonly run over the X layer work on nearly every Open Source system.
  2. I happen to be one of those users. Occasionally I like use a new(ish) window manager to check out some of the ideas behind it, however, I almost always end up right back using good old CTWM.
  3. The phrase A Shaker Approach to ... is borrowed from

    a document regarding web design found via All Things Web's recommended online reading section.
  4. Many people consider branching bad. Branching can be a legal issue. A good example is the current implementation of a program I took in called newsfetch. The newsfetch author - literally - disappeared. I was never granted stewardship of newsfetch, therefore I will have to someday branch or fork it.
  5. There are a few different kernel tuning interfaces out there, such as kmtune for HP-UX.

© 1998-2006 Jason R. Fink systhread

Last modified: May 13 2006 01:14:44 by jay.fink@gmail.com

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