Window Maker Live is a throwback to the exciting days of early Linux

This Linux distribution isn't for the average user. But for those who've been around the block a few times, Window Maker Live is a wonderful homage to what Linux was like back in the day.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer
Happy penguin
Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography/Getty Images

Linux has come a very long way. Not only is the kernel far more sophisticated and capable than during the 1990s, but the GUIs make everything so easy that working with the operating system is almost boring. 

Back in the early years, running Linux on the desktop meant doing a lot of configuration via text files. And even though every window manager did things differently, it was almost an inevitability that a user would have to open a terminal window and work with the command line. 

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That challenge was also part of the fun. Some window managers went so far as to require users to edit desktop menus via a text file, such as the Window Maker window manager.

I spent a few years with Window Maker as my default desktop. Part of the joy was getting to know the system well enough that editing menus and undertaking other tasks in this fashion became second nature.

Although using this method was far from convenient, it was a good learning opportunity -- and the Window Maker window manager was blazing fast and lightweight. So, when I installed the Window Maker Live distribution recently, I was pleasantly surprised to find that, although I had to jolt my brain to remember where some of those config files existed, Window Maker hadn't changed much. 

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Window Maker Live is a Linux distribution dedicated to bringing Window Maker back to relevance. Granted, the appeal of this version of Linux will most likely be limited to those people who've spent years watching Linux evolve into the modern and user-friendly desktop operating system that it is today. However, any type of user should enjoy using Windows Maker Live to see where Linux started.

After a weekend of using Window Maker Live, I came away thankful for the efficiency of modern Linux, but also felt proud that I have been along for the ride during the past few decades.

If you have any interest in reminding yourself (or discovering) what Linux was like in the early days, you owe it to yourself to install this distribution. 

The default Window Maker Live desktop.

Window Maker is a unique window manager that will remind some users of the good ol' days.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

What is Window Maker?

Window Maker is a window manager, which is a software stack that controls the placement and appearance of windows. The difference between a window manager and a desktop environment is that a desktop environment is far more integrated than a window manager. 

Where the definition gets a bit confusing is that a window manager is actually part of a desktop environment. So first, you have a windowing system (such as X.org or Wayland). On top of that, you have a window manager. Then, you can add a desktop environment that further integrates the window manager, the windowing system, and the installed applications.

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Window Maker Live includes the first two elements: a windowing system and a window manaer. And although it's easy to mistake Window Maker for a full-blown desktop environment, the simple act of installing an application and making it appear in the desktop menu illustrates the difference. Let me show you how.

Let's say you want to install Firefox on Window Maker Live. Because Window Maker Live is based on Debian, Firefox can be installed with apt. However, the standard version of Firefox isn't available via the default repositories. Firefox ESR, however, is. So, to install Firefox ESR, you must open a terminal window, which is accessed by left clicking the desktop and selecting Terminal from the menu.

The main Window Maker desktop menu.

The Window Maker desktop menu can be accessed from anywhere on the desktop.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

From the terminal, install Firefox ESR with:

sudo apt-get install firefox-esr -y

You might think after the installation is complete that Firefox would then be available to the desktop menu, but it's not -- and you have to add it manually. To do this, go back to the terminal window and open the proper file for editing with the command:

nano ~/GNUstep/Library/WindowMaker/menu.hook

In that file, scroll down until you see the following section:

"Network" MENU
  "PuTTY" SHEXEC /usr/bin/putty
  "Remmina" SHEXEC /usr/bin/remmina
"Network" END

Change that section to:

"Network" MENU
  "Firefox" SHEXEC /usr/bin/firefox-esr
  "PuTTY" SHEXEC /usr/bin/putty
  "Remmina" SHEXEC /usr/bin/remmina
"Network" END

Save and close the file with the [Ctrl]+[X] key combination. Now, if you open the desktop menu and go to Network, you'll see the Firefox entry you just added.

The Window Maker Networking menu.

We've added Firefox to the Network menu.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

The desktop

You might be wondering what all those icons mean on the desktop (see the desktop image, above). Although I can't remember the specific names of these elements, here's the function they serve (clockwise from top left):

  • The desktop pager (where you can manage virtual desktops)
  • The welcome app
  • The Window Maker Preferences app
  • A quick access drawer that contains launchers for certain applications
  • The clock
  • The system tray
  • The media controller
  • The Surf launcher
  • The Telegram launcher
  • The Terminal launcher
  • The root terminal launcher
  • The Synaptic package manager

Interacting with open apps

When you open an application, you won't find the standard minimize/maximize/close buttons. What you'll find is a button in the top-left corner and a close button in the top-right corner. 

If you left click the button in the top-left corner, the app will miniaturize, meaning it'll minimize to the bottom-left corner of the desktop. 

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To bring the app back, simply double click on it's miniaturized icon.

Firefox running on Window Maker Live.

As you can see, the window housing Firefox has two icons and a title bar that allow interaction.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

If you double click the app's title bar, the app will shade, which means it rolls up into the title bar, where you can move it around the desktop and leave it where it's convenient. I've always been a big fan of window shading, as it makes for a very efficient desktop.

Two shaded windows on the Window Maker desktop.

Here you see Firefox and Surf shaded, and the terminal open and ready to accept input.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

And that's kind of the beauty of Window Maker Live. The more you get to know how it works, the more efficient it becomes. Yes, you will still have to manually edit menus and the like, but with a bit of work -- and some time -- you can wind up with a desktop that's very efficient, highly reliable, and lightning fast.

The big question is, do you have the time to invest in such an effort?

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I've really enjoyed my time with Window Maker Live, even if only because it reminded me of how I got my start with Linux. If you either want to take a walk down memory lane or get a peek into what early Linux desktops were like, I highly recommend giving this distribution a try.

You can download Window Maker Live from the official download page.

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