I've been know to rant at times about crappy Linux desktop software. So here's a praise for a change: a praise to LXDE.
You know when the name of a piece of technology starts with "Simple" or "Lightweight", it's really not? SMTP, SNMP, LDAP? Well, LXDE proves that wrong.
I first heard about LXDE from Klaus Knopper's presentation at Chemnitzer Linux-Tage 2009, where he described why he chose LXDE as the new default desktop for his well-known Knoppix live CD/DVD/environment.
I have never really been interested in the debate of late about how short we can possibly get the boot time of a Linux machine/desktop, since I've been using suspend-to-disk for years everywhere. I only reboot for kernel upgrades, and possibly when the wakeup gets botched, which happens about once a month, I guess. But that's a different matter. What I was interested in was a lightweight desktop environment to run inside a VirtualBox.
So LXDE. apt-get install lxde gives you the whole thing. Well, the only thing that's missing is a web browser, which you will have to select and install yourself. I had reported previously on the amusing quest to find a "lightweight" web browser.
Unlike some geek-enabled minimal desktop environments, LXDE doesn't surprise the average user with an unusual layout. You have a taskbar at the bottom (can be moved to the top, for those used to GNOME), with a menu button, buttons for file manager, terminal, browser, minimize all windows; on the right, there is a CPU meter, a clock, a screen lock and a logout button. At least on Debian, the terminal and browser buttons call x-terminal-emulator and x-www-browser, respectively, so whatever browser you choose to install, it will work. There is also an image viewer and a handful of minor tools and settings available through the menu. And you can start random commands with Alt+F2. But that's more or less it.
Another thing that is interesting about LXDE is that it makes "ps" useful again. Under KDE, a "ps x" on relatively idle desktop produces what feels like 50 processes. Under LXDE it shows 15, which includes the terminal, bash, and ps processes to produce the listing. And it looks like with a bit of effort that number could be reduced even further.
Even though it's quite small, LXDE supports freedesktop standards. It uses desktop files, dbus, openbox as window manager, and supports compiz if you want. You can easily run GNOME or KDE applications, and they will behave reasonably. Once you do, however, they will of course load their lot of libraries and daemons, and the lightweightness will be gone. So on a workstation desktop, where you might want to run a graphical mail program, a calendar application, network manager, update notifier, and so on, LXDE will probably not buy you much. But on netbooks and virtual boxes, where all you need is a browser and a shell, this is a great alternative that is usable by everyone, and one that is true to its lightweight attribute. So far.