It's taken far longer than originally expected, but Xfce 4.8 is nearly here. Originally due in April, and then June, the 4.8 release is making slow and steady progress towards a final release. The second preview release (4.8pre2) came out on December 6th and is looking fairly solid. Xfce 4.8 is a modest update, but this release cycle has brought much more than a few features and bugfixes.
Xfce is meant to be a lightweight desktop environment, which is modular
and compliant with standards from freedesktop.org. It's popular
on Linux, but is meant to be run on just about any Unix-like OS. Xfce
uses even version numbers to indicate stable releases, and odd version
numbers to indicate development releases — much like GNOME. This is
not accidental, since Xfce started using GTK+ and Glib from the GNOME
project during the Xfce 3.0 cycle.
The Long Road to Xfce 4.8
Xfce 4.8 is a relatively minor update on the surface. It doesn't bring extensive user interface changes like GNOME 3.0. But Xfce also has a much smaller developer community, and the 4.8 cycle has been plagued with developers bowing out of the project for one reason or another.
Jannis Pohlmann, one of the Xfce maintainers, addressed
the delays in a post on his blog in January. This was not the first
time that an Xfce release had been well past the release date. The 4.6
release was also delayed, and wound up being two years in the making when
it was released in February 2009.
The developers have been busy. During this release cycle, many of the core components have been rewritten or replaced. For instance, the the Xfce Panel was completely rewritten. The rewrite should provide much better support for users who are working with multi-head setups, as well as better launcher management. HAL and ThunarVFS have been removed or relegated to legacy status, and support for GIO, PolicyKit, and ConsoleKit, and udev have been added.
In addition, Xfce replaced its old UI library (libxfcegui4) with a new library called libxfce4ui. This, of course, required other components to be ported to the new library. And the port to GIO also caused delays. With great changes come great delays in development cycles.
This release cycle also saw a transition to Transifex for Xfce translations. As of August, Xfce had received 4,012 submissions in 45 languages from 101 users in Transifex. Xfce also migrated to Git during the 4.8 development cycle, which probably slowed work a bit and also caused at least one contributor to move their project to Sourceforge rather than having to learn Git.
Finally, the release process underwent a revision to allow sub-projects (like the Thunar file manager, or the panel, window manager, etc.) to release separately. Though this release has been slow in coming, the idea is that future releases will be easier to manage without requiring all components to release simultaneously.
Pohlmann notes that the Xfce development team is "very small," with the news that the maintainer of three core components (xfdesktop, xfconf, and xfce4-session) was leaving due to a new job. Two existing Xfce maintainers stepped up to share responsibility for xfdesktop and xfce4-session, but Pohlmann also notes that his university work was mostly limiting his contribution to communicating about the status of the project, and not much hacking. In short, more developers would be welcome.
So would a little cash. Unlike GNOME or KDE, Xfce is a fairly informal
project — and without ready funds to support developer gatherings or
any kind of activities. At least for now. In October, Pohlmann announced his intent to form a non-profit for Xfce in Germany. Why Germany? Pohlmann says that it doesn't matter much where it's registered for the purposes of donations and "there are a number of German Xfce contributors and users, so chances are good that there will always be someone to take care of things." The foundation is still in the works, but one hopes it will be finished in the early part of 2011.
In the meantime, there's the 4.8pre2 release, which seems fairly stable now. Source is available as are packages for several distributions.
Using Xfce 4.8
It's been a while since I've spent any time using Xfce, and the first
impression is that very little has changed in my absence. The desktop
doesn't look any different than I remember it, though testing the packages
on Xubuntu it would be easy to mistake Xfce for GNOME 2.x at first
glance. To get the full effect, I got rid of the default Xfce configuration
and ran the first-run setup wizard. It's hard to believe that this desktop
was once a clone of the ugly duckling Common Desktop Environment (CDE).
Xfce is not quite as full-featured as GNOME or KDE, but then again, it's not meant to be. The basic desktop consist of the Xfce panel or panels, the desktop session, the Thunar file manager, and the Xfwm4 window manager. Everything "just works," without really getting in the way. Adding new launchers to the panel, or modifying the panel, works without any problem.
One longstanding complaint about Xfce is the lack of a proper menu editor. This release doesn't include a native Xfce menu editor, but it's now possible to use GNOME's Alacarte menu editor to edit the Xfce Panel menu. Whether the Xfce project will whip up its own menu editor at some point seems unclear, but there doesn't really seem to be any need — Alacarte does the job just fine.
Most of the changes in Xfce 4.8 are invisible, or nearly so, to the user. Yes, you can now use Gigolo to easily connect to remote and local filesystems, which is new. No, you really don't want to know why it's called that.
Thunar now has a "Network" item in the side panel, and the Trash icon is
optional now. The panel length can be set by the percent of the desktop it
should consume, and some improvements have been made for a vertical
placement of the panel. Users won't notice, but Xfce now uses ConsoleKit to
handle its shutdown or startup. In general, there are lots of minor changes that one has to dig to notice. This is not a bad thing, though. Xfce wasn't in need of radical changes.
The final Xfce 4.8 release is scheduled for January 16, 2011, and it should appear in the next releases of all the major distributions that ship Xfce (Xubuntu 11.04, openSUSE 11.4, Fedora 15, etc.). If you're already using Xfce, there's no rush to upgrade — the changes are subtle enough that most users won't notice them unless a specific bug (or the inability to edit the menus) has been particularly annoying. It does look like a solid, no-frills release, though — and a welcome option for Linux users who want an old-school desktop environment that's fast and relatively light on resources.
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