An interview with the EDE developer

It’s summer solstice today and thus the longest day of the year. I promised something special and here it is: Sanel Zukan, the man behind the Equinox Desktop Environment (EDE) agreed to give me an interview (or to answer a few questions if you will).

If you’re not familiar with EDE, I tried to summarize it up for you before the interview.

EDE in short

What is EDE? It is a full DE you might not even have heard of despite it being one of the older *nix desktop environments. Of course it’s older than Unity, MATE, Razor-qt and the likes. But it is also older than LXDE and – hard to believe – E17! At the same time it’s more light-weight than any of these – including the ones which were created as light-weight alternatives themselves.

Said DE is something special. Where others talk about being light-weight, EDE seriously means it and takes the gloves off. Not making any compromise, it’s the only full DE which is based on FLTK (Fast Light Toolkit), a GUI toolkit which also lives up to its name.

Not being packaged by any major distribution, today EDE is mainly used on older pcs or other systems which are low on resources. It doesn’t provide its own applications for everything nor does it want to. Driven forward more or less by one lone fighter, it surely doesn’t have to hide and fear comparison with other DEs. Taunted as “poor man’s KDE” by some and appreciated as an insider’s tip without all the knick-knack by others it’s just going its way. And if it rightfully deserves one label that would be “No bloat here”. Seriously.

Interview with Sanel Zukan

The following interview was conducted by email.

Please introduce yourself first: Who are you, how old are you and where are you from?

I’m 32, from Sarajevo. By day I’m doing java/python stuff for a small local company and by night I try to hack various OSS projects; of course EDE, too.

Do you have any special interests aside the IT sector you would like to mention here?

Martial arts! πŸ™‚ It is quite challenging to combine IT work with regular training …

For how long have you been using Linux?

Let’s see… For approximately 10 years.

Which is your distribution of choice and why?

Slackware. Because it is simple, lean and very, very stable. I really admire Patrick (Slackware author and maintainer) because he is showing us how a complex project can be and should be maintained.

Is there anything in the Linux or FOSS world you are not really happy with?

The idea to reinvent the wheel all over again. PulseAudio, systemd, gdbus, kdbus, *Kit, are some examples. Instead of improving the current state, those guys focus on rewriting it, making another set of mistakes which brings the full idea back to the beginning: a half balked product.

Also this is quite hard to follow from a developer’s perspective because APIs are changing often; no wonder that developers are going to OS X or *BSD land. This whole way of thinking makes Linux look bad, especially from a novice user’s perspective.

There are more than 15 desktop environments in use in the Linux world. Why did you decide to dedicate your time to EDE?

I like fast, simple and responsive environments without much of bloat that don’t get in your way. Desktops should be invisible and the user should be able to focus on daily tasks more than on desktop effects.

And I like to revive old computers: they are still usable for daily tasks so why to throw them away? Now, the last thing on those computers you want is a desktop that eats all of your memory or cpu power.

What can you tell us about early EDE?

Not much because I’m not familiar with its early history. When I came in, the project was pretty much dead and all original developers had left it. Not sure about the reasons because I never got any reply from them.

What do you think were the most remarkable achievements of versions 1.x?

The project gained some traction and people started to talk about it. One of the reasons for this were regular releases (5-6 months).

Most developers retired from working on EDE. Can you tell us the reason for that? Was it due to technical problems? Real-life issues? Or perhaps the fact that EDE never became popular and remained an underdog to this day?

Maybe a little bit of everything. Working on a desktop isn’t an easy task because there are a lot of pieces involved in it: UI development, low-level stuff, application incompatibilities, etc. Also, doing it in your free time requires dedication.

Do you still have contact with the retired devs and do you know if they still care for EDE (though not actively participating)?

Only with Vedran. Others (except Dejan) never bothered to even reply to my mails.

You took over EDE – and managed to rebuild the DE from scratch with version 2.0. Why did you continue to work on it and did anybody help you? Where did you draw your motivation from?

Sure, there are a lot of people who come and go, give some ideas, fix issues; this project would not be alive without their help that’s for sure. Why do I continue to work on it? Because there is no desktop that satisfies my needs: be simple and stable. And it is fun.

“eFLTK” – can you tell us what that was and why it was created?

eFLTK was a fork of the never-released FLTK 2.0 and it was created with the idea to speed up FLTK 2.0 development and make desktop development easier.

FLTK, following true UNIX philosophy, is a GUI only toolkit and you need much more for a functional desktop environment. That is the main reason I still prefer FLTK over other popular GUI libraries; I’m paying only for what I use.

This modified toolkit was one of the main reasons to start over with 2.0, right?

Yes. Maintaining a desktop and a complex toolkit (eFLTK got a tons of new stuff) isn’t an easy task so we decided to drop it and go on using something with much better support.

Why are you using FLTK? Why not for example FOX (which has its own desktop project that however seems to go nowhere)?

Probably by accident. πŸ™‚ When I started to use and develop for Linux, I didn’t have much experience with UI development, so I searched for something that is easy to pick up, small enough to grasp and have good OpenGL support.

I needed OpenGL because, in that time, I tried to build some level design tool for my pet game.

According to their site, LXDE considered using FLTK as well. In the end it was rejected in favour of GTK+ because it offered too little internationalization support. What about EDE in this regard?

One of the main reasons why we pushed eFLTK for so long is because FLTK 1.1.x, in that time, didn’t have UTF-8 support, which is probably the reason why the LXDE guys ditched it.

Do you use EDE on a daily basis? What other DEs do you like?

Yes. I’m using it on all my computers, including on work; that is why I’m focused on stability so much. It is not good idea to lose all of your daily work because of a bug in the WM or panel.

Other DEs I like? I like Γ‰toilΓ© ( because they are doing some really cool stuff; I’m not sure what the current status is because the project looks dead to me, which is quite sad.

Those who followed the development of EDE mostly thought that the project was dead when all of a sudden 2.0 final was released. What had happened?

We (Vedran and I) went silent to focus on 2.0 development and release it as soon as possible. It took some time because there was a lot of work to do, and we did it twice!

To explain this, I need to tell some of FLTK’s history which greatly affected EDE. FLTK project had two main branches, stable 1.1.x and 2.0.

FLTK 2.0 promised a lot of new and shiny things, like namespace support, UTF-8, advanced X stuff (RandR, Render and etc.). EDE initially started to use FLTK 2.0 (even before I joined) which was forked at some point and eFLTK created.

After some talk with the FLTK 2.0 devs, they promised us to make a release soon; we ditched eFLTK, started to rewrite EDE in FLTK 2.0 and started to contribute to that toolkit.

Unfortunately that library (as if it was cursed) never got released. I got really mad and rewrote everything (with Vedran’s help) again in FLTK 1.1.x and never regretted it. This should have been done long time ago.

Are you happy with 2.0 in general?

Pretty much.

What about EDE users – do you get a lot of feedback? Are there any features which are often asked for?

Yes; I’m getting more feedback by mail than on the EDE forum, which isn’t good as people new to the project tend to think it is inactive. However, I understand why people sent me the mails: SourceForge forums are extremely bad and they get a reply much faster. πŸ™‚

Main features asked for are more configuration support, a file manager and support for internationalization. Funny thing: no one ever asked for compositing or blinky blinky stuff.

EDE 2.1 is on its way and might be available soon. What new features can EDE users expect from it?

More stability, more speed and tons of little improvements including full panel configuration.

Let’s talk about the future. What are your plans for EDE after 2.1? What is your “goal” with EDE?

Truth to be told, after the 2.0 rewrite I learned not to do any big changes anymore but small incremental ones instead. So after 2.1 I’m planning to add a File Manager, fix remaining bugs and add more DBus support.

Ultimate goal? I really like and admire Smalltalk environments (like Pharo) where you can change, adapt or remove programmatically any part of it. I would like to add some of those things in EDE but it will be quite challenging, because Pharo is powered by Smalltalk and EDE is done in C++ which isn’t suited for runtime dynamism. That is why I added a Scheme interpreter and plan to use it more often in the future.

A little statistics: How many daily hits does the project homepage currently have in average?

Huh not sure; the last time I checked EDE had ~5000 hits per hour; now if half of that are bots, the stats aren’t bad considering the last release was a year ago and the project isn’t mentioned much in the media.

However, there are very big peeks each time a new version is released.

What do you think are the reasons for EDE to be still quite unknown among Linux users despite existing for more than 10 years? How to change this fact?

Probably a few things:

1) lack of frequent, predictable releases
2) more advertizing
3) support from a big company

If you remember, LXDE gained wide traction when RedHat created a Fedora spin for LXDE.

There’s also the FLTK applications project – but it hasn’t really released anything, yet. Do you know anything about that or about any FLTK applications in the making?

Not much. It was probably some attempt to document and collect popular applications, but never got significant traction. Probably one of the reasons is that more people develop commercial applications with FLTK, because it still has a quite liberal license.

You awake at night, a strange light surrounding you. The good FOSS fairy is floating in the air before you! She can do absolutely everything FOSS related; whether it’s doxygen with zero dependencies, FLTK 2 revived and actively developed or something a little less unlikely. πŸ˜‰ She grants you three wishes!

LOL. Well:

1) Live kernel update
2) File system with good snapshot and history support (like ZFS)
3) Webkit with FLTK backend

Ok, back to serious. A coder with some time on his hands is searching for a new project. He stumbles over EDE and likes it. If he asked you how he could help with it what would you advice him to do?

He could try to fix things he don’t like or create applications he would like to see. I’m always open to ideas and ready to give some guidance.

Which FLTK application that was never made do you miss the most?

Webkit with an FLTK backend. There was some project a long time ago including even a screenshot, but author never made any code public.

Why was EDE’s own WM replaced with PekWM? What are your plans for the future of the WM used in EDE?

To speed up the release. Developing a WM from the scrach, or porting it to another toolkit, is quite time-consuming so I used pekwm as temporal replacement. There are plans to replace it, but I’m not thinking about it right now, because there are more important things to be done, like the file manager.

Thanks a lot for taking the time to answer these questions – and of course for EDE! I wish you success with your further work on it.

What’s next?

My next blog entry will be about EERIE turning 1 year old and about what has been accomplished so far.

2 thoughts on “An interview with the EDE developer

  1. I use the RemasterSys Ubuntu 12.04 LTS remix with the EDE desktop on a 6 year old PC. I did also install LXDE, so I do switch between them. Still, I really like EDE.

    1. EDE is a great DE and thanks to the remix you mentioned people can easily give it a try. The big drawback of it is that it uses EDE together with mostly (?) GTK+ applications.

      Yet I hope that, sometime, a new distro sees the light of day which uses EDE together with FLTK applications. Who knows – perhaps there are already people working on it? *wink* *wink*

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