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Editor's Note: Xi Graphics Is Here to Save You from Free Software

DeXtop: Retro X

  • September 21, 2000
  • By Michael Hall

"That's right. CDE is the industry standard GUI for UNIX systems. That is why UNIX workstations from a bunch of big-name companies have the same "look and feel" about the desktop. Even though these big companies are tough competitiors, they got together for the sake of the customers and make the "dashboards" all look and work pretty much the same. Can you imagine the problems we would have if every automobile manufacturer had completely different cockpits? Some with gas pedals, others with throttle levers; some with steering wheels, others with joy sticks; some with . . . , well, you get the idea. What a nightmare it would be. We should have to take college courses in how to drive a particular car!"

--Marketing Copy from the Xi Graphics Web Site

And there you have it.

Just when you thought the Linux community had finally agreed to disagree on desktops when KDE and GNOME advocates resolved licensing issues, you learn you were wrong: the Linux community is evidently poised on the brink of a new Dark Age that wiser "big-name" companies had once struggled to prevent.

My attention was first drawn to Xi Graphics' attempt to repackage and sell CDE to Linux users as the DeXtop environment during the week of LinuxWorld. The product arrived on my doorstep about the same time the GNOME Foundation was being announced. That announcement triggered a new round of commentary that managed to draw in two favorite topics of debate: the "desktop wars" and the standards issue.

For the purposes of feuding over desktops, CDE is, to Linux users, a non-issue. KDE and GNOME are the acknowledged primary competitors in the Linux world, and the recent opening of Motif and CDE have done nothing to shake that. For purposes of feuding over standards, CDE is more often used as the poster child for the standards process running amok. If ever an interface managed to bring to computing the same design standards that went into, say, the platypus, CDE is it. The fact that some of the same heavies that tried to inflict it on us once upon a time are now behind GNOME speaks volumes about where they stand on it today. Chalk that one up to a victory for Free Software or, if you aren't as sanguine as I am about the future of Linux on the desktop, the utter and abject failure of industry pointing a loaded standard at our heads.

CDE's consignment to the dustbin of UNIX history, though, didn't stop Xi Graphics from making a game effort to remarket it to a new generation of Linux users as "the" industry standard, and their arguments for why we should adopt it (noted above) play to the fears of some that Linux is headed for the sort of disastrous fragmentation that allowed Microsoft to walk over the back of UNIX in the 90s.

The problem here isn't that someone's trying to sell a product that isn't going to be very popular. The problem is that the standard Xi Graphics would like to front is based on the premise that we'll turn our backs on GNOME and KDE (which seems unlikely) and the XFree project (which moves out of the realm of "unlikely" and straight into "loony.")

DeXtop, they declare, isn't built to work with the "nonstandard" implementation of XFree, and you won't get your money back if it breaks, brings your graphical environment down with it, and leaves you staring at an X server that recycles itself every two seconds in a futile effort to launch an environment that refuses to acknowledge xfs, the X font server found on many distros.

They also won't refund your money if you manage to get it to at least load a login screen, but renders the keyboard unusable because your X server and the console are fighting for control of tty6, which is considered the territory of the text console on every distro I've come across in recent memory.

Nope... if you want the "industry standard" GUI, you need to come up with the scratch to buy the nonstandard Xi Graphics Accelerated X server. At that point, your machine will be "just like everybody else's" and you'll be allowed to pass through the gate to the joys of CDE, which is still, in case any of you were wondering, just as belligerently clunky and ugly as anyone who ever used it remembers. I can say that because I managed to get it running on one machine after two calls for tech support and managing to render a laptop and two desktops unusable until I could use ssh from yet another machine to reboot them.

There are some things you can do to make DeXtop work on your Linux distribution without the Accelerated X server: you can give up on using anything other than DeXtop (GNOME won't run with it on the machine thanks to the replaced libraries GNOME happily runs against on virtually every distro out there), you can tell it to leave tty6 alone (or tell your distro to do the same for purposes of using the text console), and you can forego use of your distro's font server if it happens to be xfs (which will make users of Red Hat, which packaged a fairly nice, truetype-capable patched version in 6.2, happy, I'm sure.)

If you decide to install DeXtop on a whim (one of those whims that cost hard-earned money), have your distribution's CD handy or make sure your /etc/apt/sources.list file is in order: you'll be reinstalling your X libraries when you uninstall DeXtop: it very blithely blows them away and doesn't replace them as it comes off the machine. That is, according to an employee at Xi, a "known issue," but not one they'll fix because they warned you not to bother if you didn't spend some money on their X server, and the overhead of storing the files the installer replaced just isn't worth it to them.

So, once you bid fond farewell to the nonstandard nightmare you never knew was lurking in /usr/X11R6, you have a working version of CDE that's faithful to the original (not a nonstandard knockoff that manages to look exactly the same and do pretty much everything CDE ever did, like xfce.)

Your new environment, by the way, uses Motif, and its designer's are militant about what that means for any applications you may have that are built for one of the other environments:

"Also, keep in mind that applications written to "target" a freeware GUI such as Gnome, KDT, Enlightenment, or one of the others floating around out there, likely will not work with the industry standard CDE, on which DeXtop is based," reads the copy on the web site.

"Floating around out there."

You know... those fly-by-nighters who have been working on their projects for years now. The same shady types packaged standard on every distro worth noting. Are you going to entrust the future of Linux to a band of hackers?

Xi Graphics sincerely hopes not.

Everything you thought you knew about the desktop wars, the standards debate, and the direction of Linux as an independent inheritor of (but not slave to) the UNIX tradition is wrong. The future evidently doesn't belong to the free software projects we have in KDE and GNOME: it belongs to a company that managed to repackage a product that was opened as a last-gasp effort to remain relevant years after its demise as a meaningful reference point for anything but nostalgia buffs and curiosity seekers.

Please.

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