New Linux desktop environment
I am developing a new Linux desktop environment. This may sound odd in 2021, desktop environments being a part of Linux landscape for the last 20 years, so why I’m doing it?
Obviously, I’m not satisfied with the available options (not only on Linux, but also under macOS, but there is no chance to having better desktop environment for macOS).
More specifically, I do not see an existing solution that successfully covers the following needs:
- deep work,
- dynamic hardware and networking environment,
Deep work, or work in the state of the flow, requires environment that minimises distractions and promotes formation of habits.
Existing desktop environments are not scoring high on these counts:
Visible latency of desktop environments is a constant source of distraction. One can often see the lag of GNOME desktop, even on a last-generation video card! This means keystrokes and mouse clicks often get misdelivered or lost, and this breaks the formation of habits: one can start forming a habit by using keystrokes or mouse actions, only to see it crumbling when one becomes good at this habit, as latency kicks in and breaks the flow.
Application laggines creates unneeded source of distraction too. While desktop environment may not do much in this regard, there is not enough work for detection of laggy applications popping up their windows in the middle of unrelated operation.
Stability. One might think that after 20 years of development desktop environments finally settled down, but this is not what happens. Due to lack of hackability (see below), this makes upgrades very disruptive.
Notification systems are a nuisance, and desktop environments, while acknowledging their distraction potential, and providing crude ways to disable notifications, do not have a good solution for important, non-urgent notifications.
Dynamic hardware and networking environment
Desktop environments are no longer used on PCs encased in tower cases sitting on the floor with peripherals connected to them before boot. Hence the desktop environment has to give user the control over the hardware and networks coming and going dynamically, and the following is the minimal list:
- WiFi connectivity
- Mobile broadband connectivity
- Bluetooth input and output (keyboards, mices, trackpads, audio)
- USB peripheral devices (mass storage, eGPUs)
- Displays (HDMI, DisplayPort, Thunderbolt, DB-over-USB tunneling)
- Thunderbolt access control
- Various weird stuff, like pairing Logitech mice and keyboards using their special dongles.
This rules out any Wayland compositors except KDE and GNOME: like X11 window managers, many niche Wayland compositors are scoring high in the “deep work” department, but they do not provide the user with any tools for hardware management.
As a side-note, wlroots-enabled compositors are doubly disqualified as wlroots project won’t merge support for NVidia drivers due to political reasons.
If the software was perfect, hackability won’t be needed. Alas it is not, so to overcome the imperfections of software we still have to improve it.
Hackability is a freedom often touted by open source advocates, but this freedom is very hard to exercise in reality for existing desktop environments.
Imagine a single person trying to change a way GNOME shell works. How does one learn how to do it, how does one prepare, how does one execute the change, and how does one integrate this change?
Direct dependencies of
gnome-shell package in Debian include 64 packages,
GNOME-related indirect dependencies is over a hundred packages long.
How does one understand which piece of code to change? By wading around in the source code that contains tons of boilerplate?
How does one create a debug environment for experimenting with GNOME shell? GNOME shell contains a lot of C code, so all the libraries have to be rebuilt in debug mode. I don’t see a documentation how to do it in a way that does not ruin the system one is developing on. NixOS comes close, and actually provides a way to integrate changes back to the running system, but it comes with its own set of drawbacks.
Once this is done, how one uses the changed code, especially if the fix is not in the shell itself (as a leaf package it could easily be replaced), but in a library? What if the change is spread over several packages?
Hackability can’t be introduced into a large system once it’s built, so there is no hope it can be added to existing desktop environments.
The project is named 5DE, and the goals for the project are as stated above: try to make a Linux desktop environment that facilitates deep work, handles dynamic hardware/networking environment of computers and provides hackability.
There is not much there yet, and I will be documenting its progress in this blog for the time being.