What is a window manager?

This post describes the form and function of window managers used in personal computing.  I will distinguish the window manager from other aspects of the graphical user interface and attempt to illustrate the variety that exists.

In short a window manager organizes and displays the application windows that are open on a computer.

That sounds kind of cryptic at face value.  That’s because the goal of window managers is NOT to be noticed, but to be effective at that task.  In Windows and Mac OS X the window manager is set and unchangeable, but in Linux and BSD there are many different window managers available and they all do things quite differently.

Window managers typically provide the following features: the title bar, control buttons for closing, maximizing, and minimizing windows, window borders that can usually be dragged for resizing, keyboard shortcuts for switching between maximized windows, virtual desktops or workspaces, and means to switching between them.  Some window managers do not provide some or all of these features, and some provide more.

One example of a feature that exists in a few window managers but not many others is a compositor.  A compositor allows for window transparency, drop shadows, and some other visual effects.  There are also some stand-alone compositors which can provide some of that functionality to window managers that don’t have it built in.

Everyone loves illustrations, so I’ll try to show a sampling of screenshots of the various aspects of window managers mentioned above.

1. Title bars:

Openbox title bar

2.  Control buttons:

Openbox control buttons with the Cuckoo-Spit theme

FVWM-Crystal control button with default theme.

Openbox control buttons with Simple-Industrial theme

Openbox control button with the Shiki-Statler theme.

3.  Window borders:

Openbox window border (draggable)

4. Window switching:

Openbox window switching OSD with Shiki-statler theme

5. Workspace switching:

Openbox desktop switching OSD with Shiki-Statler theme

6. Compositing:

Window transparency

Drop shadow

The majority of these screenshots were taken of Openbox.  Openbox may be a fairly representative exemplar of window manager graphics from 10 years ago, but now it caters to the old-hardware and lightweight crowd (of which I’m a member).

For comparison, check out some of these screenshots of different window managers and some of their themes.  See if you can find the different features noted above.

metacity, compiz, kwin, xfwm, windows 7 window manager, windows xp window manager, aqua (OS X), haikuOS, et cetera.

As you can see from these links (if the links are broken please let me know), there is a wide variety of ways of doing things with window management.  Some opt for simple and plain, others shoot the moon with effects.

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