Relive the NeXTSTEP Operating System with Window Maker

Windowmaker Feature

Released in September 1989, NeXTSTEP was the pioneering operating system behind Steve Jobs’ NeXT computer line, including the NeXTcube – one of the most desirable computers of all time. Although relatively unknown today, NeXTSTEP inspired many modern interfaces, gave birth to the Web with the first browser, and was even used by id Software to develop Doom and Quake.

You may think NeXTSTEP is now lost to time, but what if you could use essentially the same interface on a modern Linux PC with no need for emulation? With Window Maker you can.

Installation

There aren’t any major distributions based around Window Maker, so you’ll need to install it yourself. The good news is that it’s included with every major distribution and can be installed in a few minutes.

We’ll only be giving very general advice for this section, as every distribution is different, but this is how we installed Window Maker on an Ubuntu-based system. You need to see a proper list of Window Maker packages, and on an Ubuntu system the best tool for that is Synaptic. If you don’t already have it, it should be in your software store or can be installed with this command:

Again, it’s difficult to give proper instructions, but our advice would be to install the main wmaker package – which will install the chief components – then install anything that sounds fun or important. There aren’t that many packages, so it should only take a couple of minutes.

Windowmaker Synaptic

If you just want to play around with Window Maker, don’t install the wdm package, as it may override your current login screen if you’re not careful.

If you do want to use Window Maker as your main desktop, indeed, install wdm. Your boot times and RAM usage should decrease considerably by using its login manager.

Window Maker Login

Once Window Maker is downloaded, simply log out of your current session, and from your login screen choose Window Maker instead of your normal desktop.

Usage

There’s something eerily beautiful about the emptiness of the opening desktop, but it will soon fill up.

Windowmaker Blank

Starting at the top left is the Workspace switcher or “Clip.”

Window Maker Workspace Switcher

There will only be one workspace to begin with, but you can have multiple desktops by adding more workspaces from the system menu.

At the top right of the desktop is the Preferences icon. Double-click to open it.

Window Maker Preferences

The available preferences are surprisingly thorough, allowing a greater level of control than many modern Linux desktops.

Window Maker Control Center

It’s well worth defining your shortcut keys in particular, as this desktop works very well when keyboard-driven.

Moving down one icon, the icon with a picture of an old CRT monitor launches a terminal when double-clicked.

Window Maker Terminal Launcher

The real selling point of NeXTSTEP/Window Maker has to be the menu system. Right-clicking on the desktop brings up your system menu. So far, so normal. But as you navigate through sub-menus, you can actually break off bits of menu and keep them open. This means if there’s a menu you’ll use frequently – perhaps games or system settings – you can leave that menu permanently open on your desktop.

Window Maker Menu Separation

As you launch applications, the dock will start to fill up with square icons, starting from the bottom-left corner. Click the button on the top left of a window, and it will minimize, shrinking with an animation into another icon. Double-clicking that icon will bring the window back up.

Windowmaker Desktop Layout

And those really are the basics. You should be able to figure out the rest from here. See the official documentation for more.

What’s It Like to Live With?

If you’re willing to put up with a few quirks, it’s pretty great. Even though Window Maker is considered a minimalist desktop, it doesn’t really feel that way once you get a few applications going – after all, this was the interface for top-of-the-line workstations back in the day! There’s something wonderfully focused about its workflow which will appeal to anyone in highly technical fields that value features but hate clutter.

After performing a series of modern tasks, we can gladly say Window Maker as a daily desktop is entirely feasible. Firefox, Steam, YouTube, Netflix … it’s all fine. That said, doing modern tasks with an interface designed in the late 80s is wonderfully bizarre – imagine playing Overwatch on Windows 3.x, and you’ll get the idea!

There are a few issues to take note of though. Firstly, Window Maker doesn’t come with modern conveniences like auto mounting or its own file manager. There are plenty of cool Window Maker add-ons which can help, but installing something like MATE’s Caja will make life much easier.

Window Maker was also made long before the days of desktop compositors, so if you hate visual tearing, you should try something like Compton to fix that. Although Ubuntu generates a system menu, many of those entries have bad switches and don’t work properly. Be prepared to either edit the menu or launch apps manually from the terminal.

We also had an issue with the Preferences and terminal icons hanging over maximized windows, even though other icons would stay out of the way.

Window Maker Maximise Problem

If you know how to fix this issue, please let us know in the comments below.

But overall, Window Maker is still worth trying, even now. It’s lighter than any modern lightweight desktop but still powerful. While it may be extremely niche, if you yearn for another way of doing things, Window Maker may be just what you’re looking for.

Window Maker Xsnow

Looking for a unique lightweight desktop but fancy something modern? Check out our review of Lumina.

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John Knight

John Knight is a writer, most notably for Linux Format (UK), Linux Journal (US), and Maximum PC (US). Outside of open source and general computing material, John has also written for automotive publications, and is currently writing material on vintage gaming and drumming. Other areas of interest include Psychology, French, and Japanese.

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