In the final years of my high school career, more concerned with going out and drinking three times a week than with actually doing anything meaningful at my supposedly posh gymnasium, I rediscovered my love for computing – a love lost during the onset of aforementioned going out and drinking. Realising I would hit university soon, I saved up 2000 guilders, ordered the parts for a brand-new computer, and thanks to this then state-of-the-art computer, old flames were rekindled. Since this pun is burning a hole in my pocket – it was an enlightening experience.
One day, while perusing the magazine section of a supermarket in Oudorp, I came across a Linux magazine carrying a disk with Mandrake Linux on it. I don’t exactly recall which version, but I believe it came with KDE 2.x. Having heard of Linux before, I decided to just give it a go – it’s been pretty much downhill from there.
Those years were, to me at least, the golden years of digital experimentation. Even though the BeOS was already on its last legs, the sense of excitement about alternative operating systems was still very much palpable. During this time, several projects managed to squeeze their way into my heart – like BeOS (really?), QNX, KDE 3.x, and, yes, Enlightenment.
Enlightenment was the odd one out. Where both KDE and GNOME tried to build a desktop environment for the masses – in which they succeeded, in my view, only to throw their respective babies out with the bath waters – Enlightenment did its own thing. It was different from the rest, focussing on extreme customisability and copious amounts of digital glitter, and all this in a time before Quartz and Compiz.
Enlightenment, in its first 0.1 release in 1997, started out as a ‘mere’ window manager with narrowly defined goal of addressing the issue that “[every window manager] was gray bevels and UIs had to be plain to be functional or useful, and that computers/X11 were not capable of more”. It sure was capable of more – so much so, in fact, that E16 is surely not for the faint of heart, and sports so many options and abilities you can get lost forever.
E16 is old, but technically, so is its successor whose release we celebrate today. The first bit of code for Enlightenment 0.17 (yes, 0.17) was committed to cvs a long, long time ago. “The first wave of files were committed to CVS on Friday the 8th of December  at 22:52:54 UTC. More will certainly follow in the next couple of weeks and months,” Martin Geisler wrote 12 years ago.
“I don’t think that it should be necessary to add, that I’m looking forward to this”, Geisler added back then, “I don’t have a release-date, because Raster and Mandrake doesn’t want to give any promises. When asked on the maillinglist, they promptly decided to add one week to the release-date, every time someone asked.”
I guess a whole lot of people asked about release dates, because here we are, more than twelve years later, and Enlightenment 0.17, or E17 for short, has finally been officially really actually released. However, most of us will know that E17 has been very usable for years now; I recall using it several years ago to great satisfaction.
So, has E17 stuck to its roots, or has it, like many other similar products, lost its way trying to focus on a specific type of mythical user that doesn’t really exist? You will be relieved to know that E17 is every bit as configurable and themeable as its predecessor, and that the developers see this as a core aspect of the Enlightenment user experience.
Music to my ears:
Enlightenment has so many options, because we believe that CHOICE is important. If you don’t believe that your preferences matter, then maybe another project is better for you, but we firmly believe that they do. We also believe that there are others who have different preferences to you and that they matter too. We may not have accounted for every single option out there. We may not have presented it to you in a way that makes it child’s play to find and use, but we have tried.
Sometimes options are dangerous, but necessary for some people. Sometimes they are so dangerous that they are buried under layers of complex systems to try and keep them from being mis-used. Sometimes they are just, by nature, complex, and that’s life. In the end, choice is good. That means that options and configuration are important. We’d love to streamline how they are presented, and make it easier for the “Average Joe”, but never shall we do this at the expense of the power user.
Part of this is a focus on bringing all that Enlightenment has to offer to older and less powerful systems too. “We have gone to a lot of effort to make Enlightenment scale from anything like a 200Mhz ARM phone with 32M RAM all the way up to the latest multi-core, 64bit multi-Ghz and 16GB+ desktop beasts with 2 or more screens,” the team states. In other words, whatever machine you have lying around for testing, E17 will most likely work.
By this point, it’s important to explain what, exactly, Enlightenment 0.17. While E17 is still a window manager, it’s also a desktop environment – but most of it actually consists of lower-level libraries. About 80% of Enlightenment’s code are the libraries powering the environment, which means it’s a lot more than what you see on the surface. From bottom to top, E17 is unique and custom.
I’ve just made space on my laptop for Enlightenment 0.17, and I can’t wait to get going. E17 feels like it’s mooning KDE and GNOME, like it’s flipping the bird at the current trend of every project targeting some sort of mythical ‘ordinary user’ which either doesn’t exist or which they won’t attract anyway.
It’s a throwback to that time when I bought my first own computer for university, which only ended up as a battle-hardened sandbox for whatever I could coax into running on it. Now that I’m closer to 30 than to 25, have an accountant, and worry about things like the state of the housing market and the resale value of my car, E17 is just what I need.
Screw you, convention.