April 24, 2019

.comment: XFce: The Little Desktop That Could

Installation and Configuration

  • June 7, 2000
  • By Dennis E. Powell
Editor's note: If you've been reading LinuxPlanet regularly, you've probably been drawn to Dennis E. Powell's outstanding articles on KDE, K Office, and Linux. In his weekly column, .comment, Dennis will continue his coverage of these topics.

It should come as to no surprise to anyone who knows me, has read anything I've written in the last couple of years, or even has heard me muttering on the street to an invisible friend from a distant dimension: I really like KDE. I use it all the time. I live in it. I wrote a book about it. It is all I can do to keep myself from singing its praises once again right here.

But it is just possible that KDE is not for everyone. There are computers in the world that have all the juice necessary to run Linux and the X Window System but just not quite enough memory or drive space to run a bells-and-whistles desktop such as KDE or Gnome. There are people in the world--my friend David A. Bandel is among them--who want something slick and quick and who would rather pick and choose from the galaxy of Linux and X applications to create a full-featured desktop comprised of applications that are their favorites. It's entirely possible, too, that businesses employing Linux don't need the whole selection of features offered by a KDE or Gnome, and would just as soon limit desktop choices to business-related applications.

For these users there is XFce, just about the niftiest little desktop around.

Unlike the big guys, which are the work of scores of programmers, XFce is the work of just one fellow, Olivier Fourdan. A couple of years ago, seeking a fast, friendly, and efficient Linux desktop and finding none to his liking, he scratched the itch by writing his own, which, if memory serves, was written at first against the XForms libraries. It quickly developed a devout following. In March 1999 he moved the project to GTK+. Others have contributed a few patches, and its window manager (xfwm), pager (xfpager), and file manager (XFTree) as well as a Gnome module are based on the work of earlier programmers, but this little masterpiece is a Fourdan original.

Get, Build, Install
Binaries of XFce (the current version is 3.4.0) are available, but it is so easy to build and install that anyone who has any experience compiling source will have no trouble. In fact, it goes together so easily that it's a good place for the novice to undertake the art of compiling programs, a skill that any Linux user should have or get. If you're already familiar with this, jump to the next section; I'd like to indulge my belief that if newbies knew how easy it is, they would do it, which belief I'll test right now.

First, download the source from the XFce home page. (You can, if you must, get the binaries there, too.) You need to have already installed gtk+ 1.2 or better, glib 1.2 or better, libXpm 4.0 or better, and either a current egcs or a current gcc--all of which you have if you have a recent Linux distribution. The XFce tarball is under 3 megs, which means that, unlike ftps of the big desktops, you won't have time to paint the house during the download. Do a quick tar xvfz to the tarball and you're in business.

I shall oneday soon pontificate at length and with good reason on the need for Linux standards and the sorry state of the ones that already exist--because they really are in bad shape--but XFce lets you honor the standard du jour and says so in the INSTALL document, which you should read. It describes how you can use the --prefix=configuration option to decide where XFce will be installed (which is true of just about every package, but here it's explained nicely; the default is /usr for the binaries and /var for the data, though there's much to be said for /usr/local and /usr/local/share respectively).

Now that you have the source--sorry for the digression--you configure it for your machine, from a command prompt either in pure console mode or from the terminal program of your existing desktop (after having entered theXFce source directory made by opening the tarball) to wit:

./configure --prefix=/usr/local --datadir=/usr/local/share

For a minute or so, you will see all sorts of tests being done, things found, and the Makefiles made. Then you're returned to the command prompt, at which you will now type:


If you have ever spent several hours building a vast desktop, you'll be startled that XFce takes only a few minutes for the whole thing to build. Returned to the command prompt, you su root and type:

make install

And that's that: you've built and installed XFce. Ah, but how to use it?

Return to life not as root but as yourself (otherwise, you'll change root's desktop, not your own, which could be quite a surprise to root, if it's sometimes someone else), type:


And you're done. Either startx, if you're at a pure console, or leave your current desktop and startx to see XFce, which will look like it does in Figure 1.

(Your bonus for having gone through all this--or having read the INSTALL document--is that you learn an important piece of information: to return to your old desktop, all you have to do is type xfce_remove, and everything will be returned to the way it was before; to go back to XFce, just run the xfce_setup program again.)

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