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From the Desktop: Blackbox - page 2

No Thanks to the Rebate

  • October 9, 2000
  • By Brian Proffitt

The popularity of the NeXT interface among Linux users forms a strong undercurrent in the GUI community. Like Trekkers on a letter-writing campaign, this stalwart group of users keeps this interface alive by emulating it in other X window managers. After Step and Window Maker are two such window mangers based on NeXT, as well as the GUI du jour: Blackbox.

For those of you who have not tried this window manager, let's air something out right now: if you just want something simple to run your apps in a graphic interface, without a lot of frills, go download and install Blackbox right away. Of all of the window managers in this class that I have seen, this is definitely one of the fastest and most intuitive. (I am defining this class, by the way, to be NeXT-type interfaces.)

Now, if you like your interfaces heavy on the control panels, automated configurations, and what not, hang on and keep reading this article--Blackbox may still be of use to you.

Blackbox's authors, Brad Hughes and Jeff Raven, stipulate on the Blackbox Web site that this is meant to be a minimalist interface, and they aren't kidding. The toolbar, root menu, and windows menu are the only on-screen tools available, something that could make the hard-core Gnome/KDE user hyperventilate in panic. After they breathe into a paper bag, they would see that the interface can handle a lot of tasks despite its simplicity. Blackbox is austere without being stark.

Another solid feature of this window manager is the availability of utility applications designed specifically for Blackbox. These tools include bbmail, bbppp, and bbdate, just to name a few. More are available and several more are in the works.

Now, here's how the interface basically works. This is just an overview, mind you, which I feel okay in giving you since Blackbox has pretty good documentation available. The Toolbar is the center of the action, and displays the current workspace name and the name of the focussed window. Adjacent to these two displayed names are control buttons that let you cycle through all available workspaces and all open windows in pretty short order. One nifty feature I liked was the ability to right-click on the current workspace name and type in your own.

Workspaces are also accessed by the Workspace menu, available on the far left of the Toolbar. This menu displays all the workspaces on the desktop so you can shift the view to them and also can add new workspaces.

Windows are moved between workspaces very easily with each window's Window menu, activated by right-clicking a window's title bar. This menu will shade, iconify, and move the window to any available workspace in just a couple of clicks, among other things. Iconify is a bit of a misnomer, since there are no icons in the pure Blackbox interface. You have to use the Workspace menu's Icons submenu to gain access to iconed windows.

The only other control, and the only one that is configurable, is the Root menu, which displays favorite applications in one place. Configuration of the Root menu is done manually in the Blackbox menu file; copy to home directory before editing. Before making changes to the menu file, simply point the session.menuFile setting in the ~/.blackboxrc file to the absolute file location of the copied menu file.

Changing the menu file was an easy exercise, as it is full of commented examples to display how its syntax behaves. I found it really simple to add my own commands and submenus to the Root menu using just these examples. The online documentation I mentioned before also has a few more techniques you can incorporate into your own Root menu.

Once the Root menu is configured, you are left with one fast window manager in its purest form. For those who crave a bit more meat, Blackbox does feature limited KDE support, able to run that environment atop Blackbox. This combination would give some additional interface features, such as actual icons. Those wanting to use Gnome will be disappointed, as Blackbox's developers do not and are not planning to agree with the current version of the Gnome window manager specification, another assertion they have made on the Blackbox web site. There will be some functionality eventually built-in for Gnome applications in future versions, but not with the Gnome specs, which I learned in an on-line interview with Jeff Raven, the co-developer of Blackbox.


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