Moving to Openbox

With my dotfiles repository established I now have a common configuration and environment for Bash, Git, Emacs (separate repository), and even Firefox! This wouldn’t normally be possible because Firefox doesn’t have tidy dotfiles by default, but the wonderful Pentadactyl made it possible. My script sets up keybindings, bookmark keywords, and quickmarks so that my browser feels identical across all my computers. Now that it’s easy to add tweaks, I’m sure I’ll be putting more in there in the future.

However, one major application remained and I was really itching to capture its configuration too, since even my web browser is part of the experience. I could drop my dotfiles into a new computer within minutes and be ready to start hacking, except for my desktop environment. This was still a tedious, manual step, plagued by the configuration propagation issue. I wouldn’t to get too fancy with keybindings since I couldn’t rely on them being everywhere.

The problem was I was using KDE at the time and KDE’s configuration isn’t really version-friendly. Some of it is binary, making it unmergable, it doesn’t play well between different versions, and it’s unclear what needs to be captured and what can be ignored.

I wasn’t exactly a happy KDE user and really felt no attachment to it. I had only been using it a few months. I’ve used a number of desktops since 2004, the main ones being Xfce (couple years), IceWM (couple years), xmonad (8 months), and Gnome 2 (the rest of the time). Gnome 2 was my fallback, the familiar environment where I could feel at home and secure — that is, until Gnome 3 / Unity. The coming of Gnome 3 marked the death of Gnome 2. It became harder and harder to obtain version 2 and I lost my fallback.

I gave Gnome 3 and Unity each a couple of weeks but I just couldn’t stand them. Unremovable mouse hotspots, all new alt-tab behavior, regular crashing (after restoring old alt-tab behavior), and extreme unconfigurability even with a third-party tweak tool. I jumped for KDE 4, hoping to establish a comfortable fallback for myself.

KDE is pretty and configurable enough for me to get work done. There’s a lot of bloat (“activities” and widgets), but I can safely ignore it. The areas where it’s lacking didn’t bother me much, like the inability/non-triviality of custom application launchers.

My short time with Gnome 3 and now with KDE 4 did herald a new, good change to my habits: keyboard application launching. I got used to using the application menu to type my application name and launch it. I did use dmenu during my xmonad trial, but I didn’t quite make a habit out of it. It was also on a slower computer, slow enough for dmenu to be a problem. For years I was just launching things from a terminal. However, the Gnome and KDE menus both have a big common annoyance. If you want to add a custom item, you need to write a special desktop file and save it to the right location. Bleh! dmenu works right off your PATH — the way it should work — so no special work needed.

Gnome 2 has been revived with a fork called MATE, but with the lack of a modern application launcher, I’m now too spoiled to be interested. Plus I wanted to find a suitable environment that I could integrate with my dotfiles repository.

After being a little embarrassed at Luke’s latest Show Me Your Desktop (what kind of self-respecting Linux geek uses a heavyweight desktop?!) I shopped around for a clean desktop environment with a configuration that would version properly. Perhaps I might find that perfect desktop environment I’ve been looking for all these years, if it even exists. It wasn’t too long before I ended up in Openbox. I’m pleased to report that I’m exceptionally happy with it.

Its configuration is two XML files and a shell script. The XML can be generated by a GUI configuration editor and/or edited by hand. The GUI was nice for quickly seeing what Openbox could do when I first logged into it, so I did use it once and find it useful. The configuration is very flexible too! I created keyboard bindings to slosh windows around the screen, resize them, move them across desktops, maximize in only one direction, change focus in a direction, and launch specific applications (for example super-n launches a new terminal window). It’s like the perfect combination of tiling and stacking window managers. Not only is it more configurable than KDE, but it’s done cleanly.

Openbox is pretty close to the perfect environment I want. There are still some annoying little bugs, mostly related to window positioning, but they’ve mostly been fixed. The problem is that they haven’t made an official release for a year and a half, so these fixes aren’t yet available. I might normally think to myself, “Why haven’t I been using Openbox for years?” but I know better than that. Versions of Openbox from just two years ago, like the one in Debian Squeeze (the current stable), aren’t very good. So I haven’t actually been missing out on anything. This is something really new.

I’m not using a desktop environment on top of Openbox, so there are no panels or any of the normal stuff. This is perfectly fine for me; I have better things to spend that real estate on. I am using a window composite manager called xcompmgr to make things pretty through proper transparency and subtle drop shadows. Without panels, there were a couple problems to deal with. I was used to my desktop environment performing removable drive mounting and wireless network management for me, so I needed to find standalone applications to do the job.

Removable filesystems can be mounted the old fashioned way, where I create a mount point, find the device name, then mount the device on the mount point as root. This is annoying and unacceptable after experiencing automounting for years. I found two applications to do this: Thunar, Xfce’s file manager; and pmount, a somewhat-buggy command-line tool.

I chose Wicd to do network management. It has both a GTK client and an ncurses client, so I can easily manage my wireless network connectivity with and without a graphical environment — something I could have used for years now (goodbye iwconfig)! Unfortunately Wicd is rigidly inflexible, allowing only one network interface to be up at a time. This is a problem when I want to be on both a wired and wireless network at the same time. For example, sometimes I use my laptop as a gateway between a wired and wireless network. In these cases I need to shut down Wicd and go back to manual networking for awhile.

The next issue was wallpapers. I’ve always liked having natural landscape wallpapers. So far, I could move onto a new computer and have everything functionally working, but I’d have a blank gray background. KDE 4 got me used to slideshow wallpaper, changing the landscape image to a new one every 10-ish minutes. For a few years now, I’ve made a habit of creating a .wallpapers directory in my home directory and dumping interesting wallpapers in there as I come across them. When picking a new wallpaper, or telling KDE where to look for random wallpapers, I’d grab one from there. I’ve decided to continue this with my dotfiles repository.

I wrote a shell script that uses feh to randomly set the root (wallpaper) image every 10 minutes. It gets installed in .wallpapers from the dotfiles repository. Openbox runs this script in the background when it starts. I don’t actually store the hundreds of images in my repository. There’s a that grabs them all from Amazon S3 automatically. This is just another small step I take after running the dotfiles install script. Any new images I throw in .wallpaper get put int the rotation, but only for that computer.

I’ve now got all this encoded into my configuration files and checked into my dotfiles repository. It’s incredibly satisfying to have this in common across each of my computers and to have it instantly available on any new installs. I’m that much closer to having the ideal (and ultimately unattainable) computing experience!

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Chris Wellons