The creator of Xfce talks Linux, Moblin, netbooks and open-source

As Intel’s investment in the Moblin operating system gains more and more attention and more and more non-technical users are introduced to Linux-based platforms in the form of low-power netbooks. cost, 2009 will see open source become more mainstream than ever. Under the hood there are many things that make Linux safer, more efficient and more secure than competing systems, but for most new users it’s what they can see on the screen that counts. SlashGear caught up with Xfce creator Olivier Fourdan, whose desktop environment was not only selected by Intel for Moblin, but can be found on many existing Linux netbooks, and talked about Intel, Moblin, future of netbooks and the challenges it sees for the open source newcomer Android.

Q1. Can you give our readers an overview of Xfce, maybe explain a bit about what it does and your involvement in the project?

Xfce is what you would call a desktop environment, it not only includes the usual applications you would expect from a desktop i.e. window manager, panel, file manager etc. but also infrastructure such as a parameter mechanism now based on DBUS and all the development libraries that help write applications.

Like GNOME, Xfce is based on the gtk+ toolkit but it doesn’t use gconf or other gnome libraries except libwnck (which now replaces the equivalent library we had in Xfce up to 4.4) or gstreamer (for volume control applet).

Xfce isn’t new, I started the project in late 1996, before GNOME or gtk+ even existed, and the project evolved from a one man project to a fairly large project that it is now, with several core developers and a large base of contributors and users.

Q2. Do you track how many distros use Xfce as their default window manager, as well as how many distros bundle it?

I don’t really count the distros that use Xfce as their default desktop (and it’s not just Linux, there are Opensolaris and BSD variants too), but we list the main ones on the website. In fact, thanks to the standardization efforts introduced by, you can use Xfce with other different components, for example some distributions replace the window manager provided with Xfce by Compiz, or the panel with cairo dock or another panel .

It is important to remember that Xfce is not a window manager, it obviously includes a window manager, but it is much more than that (even if the window manager remains one of the basic components and at the heart of Xfce). overall user experience), and each component can be replaced with another compatible component from another project, so Xfce or parts of Xfce can be found in many different distributions.

Q3. As netbooks take the market by storm, Intel has decided to develop a new distribution called Moblin, and uses Xfce as its default window manager. What do you think of Intel’s decision, how do you think it might affect adoption of Linux by non-technical users, and do you think it will help Xfce adoption?

I believe that Intel’s support for Linux and free software is very important, not just the Moblin project but all the code openly developed by Intel, like Powertop, Intel drivers for Xorg, WiFi, etc.

I think it’s definitely a great contribution to free software. As for Linux for non-technical users, it’s much more complex than just ease of use. People are so used to Windows, they’ve been using it for so long, that they don’t realize that Windows isn’t easier than Linux (no one is born with Windows, there’s always a learning curve and learning Windows is no easier than learning Mac OS pr Linux). I think the user interfaces (GNOME, KDE, Xfce, etc.) that come with Linux are much more versatile, easy to use, and more productive than those offered by Windows, but they are different and not everyone feels confident when it’s different.

Learning a new interface, a new system, takes effort, and Linux has to provide something worth the effort. Maybe it’s because it’s cheaper (but I don’t think it’s sustainable in the long run) or because it’s faster, or because it looks better, or it’s easier, or more productive, etc. Netbook vendors have started to lead the way but I feel frustrated because when I look at what’s on offer today I think it’s too little it’s either a locked version or just a simple Linux distro. What I would expect would be in between, a full featured, configurable and attractive desktop, but customized for the Netbook hardware. This is sort of what I realized after modifying the default installation of my Acer Aspire One to get rid of the limitations imposed by the default installation.

Q4. You mentioned earlier that the Xfce team was not involved with Moblin; is the Xfce team willing to work with Intel for a better implementation of Xfce in the Moblin OS?

Of course, we are open to working with Intel if they feel the need! What I said is that I myself, as a developer of Xfce, am not involved in the Moblin project, so I cannot comment on the Moblin project itself.

But we got some great fixes from Intel developers, including fixes to improve session startup time. In the future, for example, I would love to use some of the Intel technologies, such as an optional Clutter backend for the composer built into the Xfce window manager.

Q5. Besides being a lightweight window manager, why do you think netbooks would benefit from Xfce as their default window manager?

Boot time is also a consideration, and Intel has demonstrated that it is possible to boot Linux and a full Xfce desktop in less than 5 seconds. It’s impressive. [See here for more on the 5 second boot demo]

Q6. According to the manufacturers, the vast majority of netbook buyers choose Windows XP over Linux, despite the price advantages over open source. Why do you think this is the case and what could you do to reverse it?

It’s a corollary of Q3, people want XP because they know XP. Even non-technical users know how to deal with XP, and if not, they know someone who can help them. And when that doesn’t work, they just reinstall the system.

The advantage of Open Source is not the price, it is its open nature. Knowledge is freedom and Open Source is about freedom, no closed source alternative can match that. But it’s not something so obvious when you’re new to Open Source.

The challenge is to demonstrate the benefit of this freedom to end users and hardware vendors. You can’t grab Linux and put it on a device and expect people to adopt it just like that, it takes a lot of commitment and I would like to see a clearer and clearer commitment from vendors equipment. Again, in this regard, Intel is leading the way.

Q7. What can we expect from the Xfce team in 2009? Any particular milestones you would like to see on the Xfce roadmap?

Xfce 4.6, definitely. Its release is imminent now! [4.6 has now been released]

Q8. My favorite Xfce app (sub-project) is Midori (I’ve been using it since version 0.0.1x). What is your favorite sub-project in Xfce?

All the goodies you find on are really important, that’s what makes Xfce more pleasant to use. I don’t really have a favorite.

Q9. If we look more broadly at netbooks, and the technology currently being developed not only by Intel with the Atom, but also by the Nano from VIA, the Ion from NVIDIA and the Neo from AMD, where do you see the segment evolving ?

Hard to say, I wouldn’t consider myself an expert in the field. The line between netbooks and entry-level laptops is kind of a gray area, but processor power or 3D capabilities aren’t what I expect most from a netbook.

What I expect from a netbook is battery life, lightness and a small form factor. I don’t care much about power, I have another very powerful 17 inch laptop for that. And I’m already impressed with what the netbook can do today, so I think chasing performance for netbooks isn’t the way to go (unless you want to run the latest version of Windows on it, but that doesn’t interest me either), we’ve been there before with desktops and laptops, so I think it’s wrong to look at netbooks from that perspective.

What I really miss in today’s netbook is the battery life, 2 hours of battery life for my current netbook is way below my expectations.

Q10. Google’s Android platform has brought open source software into the limelight with a mainstream audience, and the company has been open about its plans to bring the operating system to many devices, not only on cell phones. How do you think Android might affect the Linux ecosystem, and have you or the rest of the team considered developing for the platform?

No, certainly, Android does not interest me much yet. The code could be released under an open source license, but Android development seems to be quite centralized. In my opinion, there is a difference between a project like Moblin consisting of existing open source projects, each with its existing developer community, and Android which is Google’s own project released under an open source license. This is the challenge for Android, to build its own community of Open Source developers.

Many thanks to Olivier for taking the time to answer our questions. You can read more about Xfce on the official website here.

About Jon Moses

Check Also

ChromeOS Flex can turn your old laptop into a Chromebook – what you need to know

After launching in beta in February, Chrome OS Flex is now generally available for download …