The LXer Interview: Benedikt Meurer of Xfce

Posted by Scott_Ruecker on Sep 19, 2007 6:28 AM EDT
LXer Linux News; By Scott Ruecker (Phoenix, U.S.)
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LXer Feature: 19-Sept-2007

I interview one of the lead developers of the Xfce desktop environment, in The LXer Interview of Benedikt Meurer.

Benedikt Meurer was kind enough to agree to an Interview with yours truly. As one of the lead developers of the Xfce desktop environment his knowledge of the goings on concerning Xfce are second to none.

The Interview

Could you tell our readers a little bit about yourself, when your interest in computers and software started?

I'm a 26 year old guy from Siegen, a town in Germany, 100km south from cologne. I'm studying applied computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Siegen, currently finishing my diploma thesis in theoretical computer science. Additionally, I'm working as a software developer for a local software company.

I'm interested in computer science ever since I got my first computer (a 386 amstrad PC, with 640KiB RAM and 80MiB hard disk, a revolution at that time). At the age of 11/12, I started looking for a way to write my own software, and discovered that the machine shipped with a QBasic interpreter. I started playing around with the interpreter, but never really understood what was going on there.

That changed when my uncle sent me a book about Turbo C++ together with the complete Borland Turbo Suite for MS-DOS 3.x. I was able to write real programs, that actually did something useful, and even more important, I started to understand that software stuff. I continued with Pascal, Fortran, Perl and Java (after switching to Linux, SUSE 5.2, which took me 5 days to get the Xserver and KDE 1 running), and discovered that different programming languages are just different ways to express the same thing (this is where my interest in software development and theoretical computer science started).

What brought you to working on Xfce, what are your responsibilities?

IIRC, that is nearly five years ago now. At that time I was using WindowMaker most of time, but I started packaging/porting KDE 3 to NetBSD. Quite funny, but KDE lacked one important aspect of software: simplicity. Even in the early KDE 3 days, it was already a beast. If something didn't work, you had a hard time finding the cause of the problem.

Since I had already used Xfce 3 in the past, which was simple enough to be fun, I went to see what's going on there, and discovered that a rewrite for Xfce 4.0 was in the makings (driven by Jasper, Biju, Edscott and Olivier at that time). Perfect. A small code base, which one could get familiar with in less than a week. First, I contributed patches, most of them fixes required to build the stuff on NetBSD. Next, I started fixing the autotools-stuff (that's why I'm still the "autotools-dude"), nothing amazing, but I kinda liked that. For the 4.0 release, I contributed the print stuff and the utility library.

During the 4.2 days, I developed the session manager, the terminal emulator together with the exo library, a new menu system (that never made it into the official tree, but was used by Xfld and Ubuntu until recently), a lot of panel plugins and several small improvements. Today, I maintain the file manager, the session manager, the exo and utility libraries, the terminal emulator and the settings manager. The file manager was probably the most fun for the last release - and it delayed the release for at least half a year :-).

Can you give us a brief history of the Xfce project for our readers who may not know?

I must confess, that I do not know this for sure. At some time in the 90's, Olivier started working on his own CDE replacement. IIRC, that was soon after the initial work on KDE began, but before the Gnome stuff started. The 1.x and 2.x releases contained only the panel, and were based on XForms.

The 3.x release was a port to Gtk+ 1.x, and grow out to be a complete desktop environment with a window manager, a file manager, panel and several utilities. Not comparable with KDE 2 at that time, but impressive, if you take into account, that nearly all of the work was done by Olivier on his own. The 4.0 release was the port to Gtk+ 2.x, with only basic functionality. 4.2 added several features (composition manager, session manager, etc.), and 4.4, yeah, you know... :-)

What makes Xfce different and/or better than other desktop environments?

Well, better, different... That's is hard to measure, if at all possible. One of it's advantages over KDE and Gnome is the already mentioned simplicity. You can still get to know the code base in less than a week and you are able to understand the basic design decisions. This way, Xfce 4.x has still a lot of potential, while the major desktop environments are in need for a rewrite (KDE already started the rewrite, a lot of Gnome contributors/maintainers are voting for a 3.0 rewrite).

I think this is better, but on the other hand, fast growth isn't that bad either (more contributors, testers, users...). For me, Xfce is fun. I already have a software job, so I don't need another profession. In order to be fun, Xfce has to maintain this simplicity. Nevertheless, I'd like to see some more contributors. Of course, this is difficult for Xfce, since you cannot gain the kind of popularity, that you'd get as KDE, Gnome or Linux contributor. But if anybody is looking to spend his/her spare time on a fun project, he/she is always welcome to join the Xfce crew.

On that note, how many people are involved in the Xfce project right now? Is there a need for more developers?

From what I know, we are currently 6-7 active developers (I'm not really active myself ATM, because of my studies), plus around 5-10 active contributors, plus a lot of active translators. As said, we are always in need for (skilled) developers.

Tell us more about Thunar, the new File Manager, How did it come about?

The problem with xffm was that it didn't really fit with the ideas of Xfce. It was powerful, but too difficult to use and didn't comply with the user interface guidelines. So, Olivier came up with the idea of a new file manager for Xfce ("ROX w/o the oddities."), and so Thunar was born. Work started around two years ago, with public discussion of how the file manager should look like.

How is it alike, and different than Konqueror and Nautilus?

Well, it's simple and fast, easy to use. Konqueror is very powerful, but also difficult to get used to - that should change with KDE4, which has a Thunar-like file manager. :-) Nautilus on the other hand is way too heavy, probably because the direction changed several times. I cannot really comment on this, better ask one of the Nautilus maintainers here.

Does Xfce receive help and feedback from the Linux Distributions that use Xfce as their default GUI?

Gentoo and Ubuntu mostly. They forward bug reports from their own bug tracking systems, help to track issues and sometimes provide simple patches. One of the most active contributors in this area is Xubuntu's Jani Monoses. Of course, we would welcome a helping hand or two from other distributors. ;-)

What is your opinion of the GPLv3 and the attention that it gives to DRM?

Not my business. That's stuff for politicians. I've learned something useful to avoid being in the situation to care about stuff like that some day. ;-) Na, ok, seriously... my favorite license is still the BSD one. A really free license doesn't hurt anyone (in a sane world... yeah, of course not reality today, but ya never know). But imagine how the world would look like today if i.e. the first TCP/IP implementations and the sockets API wouldn't have been freely available to _ANYONE_ (w/o stupid GPL or industrial license restrictions)...And concerning DRM... I never really managed to understand why this is useful to anyone at all. But as said, not my business, better ask someone interested in this topics. :-)

What are Xfce's long term goals? What is the Xfce vision for the future?

Hm, this is difficult... one thing is of course to maintain simplicity, in order to keep the fun in it. Besides that, I plan to add better support for laptop users (I'm using some of the GNOME stuff here today, but it doesn't really work reliably, and doesn't integrate properly into the desktop) and even better volume management (to Thunar). Also a working NetworkManager frontend for Xfce would be nice, but maybe fixing nm-applet would also do the job here (and help gnome users). That's for the next year...For the long term goals: I think the most important goal is still being lightweight and easy to use.

Follow Up

Xfce 4 can be installed on several UNIX platforms and you can compile it on Linux, NetBSD, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, Solaris, Cygwin and MacOS X, on x86, PPC, Sparc and more. Xfce is meant to be fast, lightweight, visually appealing and easy to use. If you have never checked out Xfce on your Linux or Unix desktop, you are missing out. Due to its modular design you can checkout many of the Xfce programs without having to install a bunch of other programs because of dependencies.

I have seen it make many an old computer act like it has a lot more RAM and a faster processor. It made my old 350mhz machine that froze up all the time using Gnome or KDE look like it was doing jumping jacks again. Well maybe not jumping jacks, but still. Thanks again to Benedikt for agreeing to the interview and taking the time out of his schedule to answer my questions.

» Read more about: Story Type: Interview, LXer Features; Groups: Community, Linux, Xfce

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I love Xfce Steven_Rosenber 7 6,146 Sep 20, 2007 11:57 AM

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