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Mutter: window and compositing manager for GNOME 3 based on Clutter.

GNOME 3 is the GNOME project's ambitious effort to take its desktop into the future. A key component of the desktop is the window manager, which defines much of the overall feel of the system. Thomas Thurman, the maintainer of Metacity—GNOME's current window manager—is looking ahead to "Mutter" as the window manager for GNOME 3. Metacity 2 will gradually be phased out in favor of Mutter; in GNOME 2.28 it will be an alternative window manager, while in GNOME 3, it will take over the reins from Metacity.

The GNOME Shell, responsible for the new user experience in GNOME 3, runs as a plugin for Mutter. Started as a fork of Metacity, Mutter uses the Clutter toolkit. Clutter does its rendering using OpenGL or OpenGL ES, so using it in Mutter makes hardware acceleration for the window manager possible. Meanwhile, Clutter has just announced its 1.0 release.
500 bugs to squash

With Mutter becoming the new kid in town for GNOME 3, Metacity 2 will not be actively developed any more, except for bug fixes. This makes Mutter essentially Metacity 3. Of course people who would like Metacity 2 to continue because they don't like the Clutter backend may fork it, but it remains to be seen if that would happen. On his blog, Thurman welcomes anybody to do that and offers them "as much support in doing so as possible", but he will switch to working on Mutter himself. Besides all the work that has been done over the years on Metacity, Mutter has 12 contributors with at least three commits. The project is maintained by Owen Taylor and Tomas Frydrych.

This fork, however, has one big problem: what to do with the more than five hundred bugs open against Metacity? As Thurman describes on his blog, "this is more than one maintainer can humanly tackle." The simplest "solution" is to close them all, a mistake that GNOME has made in the past with the switch from GNOME 1.4 to GNOME 2. Jamie Zawinski called this the cascade of attention-deficit teenagers model.

Thurman proposes a better solution: work through all the bug reports, then decide what to do with each bug. Enhancement requests will not be fixed, unless Mutter or GNOME Shell could use it. Bugs that can be reproduced in Mutter should be reassigned. Bugs that are already fixed in Mutter, such as enhancement requests, should be marked as already fixed. Thurman kindly asks his readers to help him with this painstaking work, for which no volunteers seem to have stepped up yet.
New directions for a window manager

The development of GNOME 3 seems to be bringing new ideas from many different directions. Thurman has been doing some investigation into switching to a CSS-based format for Metacity themes; as Mutter is just the new incarnation of Metacity, many of these considerations directly carry over into Mutter:

I am convinced that the current theme format is far too complicated (or, it could be said, far too powerful) for the job it does. Designing window border themes is not a very complicated matter, but the current format makes it complicated through requiring complicated algebraic expressions for placement.

Thurman is proposing a switch to CSS, or at least the use of CSS as an alternative format. He sees several advantages of this approach:

* The Metacity/Mutter developers will be able to use existing libraries for layout rather than doing it all with custom code in the window manager.

* Theme designers will be able to use their existing knowledge of CSS rather than having to learn a complicated new format.

* CSS's box model is far more amenable to a simple drag-and-drop editor program than Metacity's current expression-based system.

Thurman is also imagining a theme designer, with a simple mode that is a wizard: it would ask the user a series of questions and would then produce some CSS code. An advanced mode would let the user edit each CSS rule individually, and reflect the changes on the screen. He is also working on a wiki, which he'll announce soon, that allows users to enter CSS and render it to an image of the window borders:

The idea here is that people who like to play with theme design are not necessarily the same people who like to build experimental software, so this lets them test it out using only a web browser.

Owen Taylor explains another new direction: Mutter will get application-aware window management. More specifically it will get knowledge about tabs:
Dave Jordan is working on a GNOME Shell Google Summer of Code project to let applications export information about their tabs to Mutter via window properties. This will allow, for example, switching directly to a specific web browser tab, rather than switching to the window, then switching to the tab.

Another developer, Sam Hoffstaetter, is working on letting the user group together arbitrary windows as tabs, something that so-called tabbed window managers offer. Each application would think it had multiple windows open, but the user would see them as tabs. The reasoning, which your author is very sympathetic to, is as follows:


Being part of the window-manager, every application would make use of tabs without having to re-invent them specifically for that application. It has always struck me that tabs were something that belonged into the window manager, not in browsers, terminals, editors, etc.

Some issues with Mutter.

Interesting as the new directions may be, some people fear that Mutter will not run on older hardware. For example, the Sugar developers didn't choose Mutter, and went for Metacity instead, exactly because of this fear. However, Taylor puts that in perspective:

Our target for Mutter is to provide a good GL-based compositor. This does exclude machines, like the first generation XO, that have no 3D hardware. Almost any desktop or standard laptop built within the last 5 years has sufficiently good graphics.

Another fear that has been expressed is that Mutter will be too tightly coupled with GNOME 3. As GNOME Shell is a Mutter plugin, it depends on it, so users will not be able to use another window manager with GNOME Shell. According to Taylor, this integration is not coincidental but by design. For example, supporting Compiz instead of Mutter would require a window management abstraction layer that "greatly increases the amount of work".

However, this approach is problematic for some use cases, as Sam Spilsbury, one of the Compiz developers, pointed out a few months ago:

If users were to use compiz with GNOME, they would lose a significant chunk of essential functionality. This is the dilemma I am sure a lot of other desktop-agnostic window managers are facing as well. It would essentially mean that users _must_ use your window manager in order to use their desktop as normal.

Of course it will perfectly be possible to create a GNOME desktop using another window manager, but then the user would miss out on the new desktop experience of GNOME Shell. For example, users will not be able to swap GNOME's window manager with a flexible window manager such as xmonad and still leave all GNOME functionality intact.
Accessibility growing pains.

The fact that GNOME Shell and Mutter use Clutter directly makes support for accessibility features such as AT-SPI (Assistive Technologies Service Provider) tricky, because Clutter has no accessibility support at the moment. GTK applications, on the other hand, have ATK (Accessibility Toolkit) which talks with the AT-SPI daemon. However, there's no inherent reason that a switch to a Clutter-based composited user interface should pose any problem for accessibility. The switch in toolkits will need a certain amount of reimplementation. That said, Taylor maintains that some accessibility features such as good magnification could become much easier in Mutter.

An active project to provide accessibility interfaces for Clutter is Cally (the name stems from Clutter + a11y), originally funded by Nokia that uses Clutter in Maemo 5. The main developer, Alejandro Piñeiro Iglesias, explains the work he has done:

Cally implements Gnome's ATK interfaces for the basic Clutter objects, but if you are using a custom Clutter object with extra functionality in your application, probably extra accessibility support would be required, like HAIL was required to implement the extra accessibility support for Hildon widgets.

Cally would be useful to implement accessibility support in Mutter and GNOME Shell, but Iglesias says he should check the code first and see what he needs to implement and how. He presented Cally [PDF.GZ] at the recent Gran Canaria Desktop Summit.
A fresh start

According to Taylor, Mutter is not that exciting in isolation, but it is meant to provide a platform for building exciting user interfaces like Moblin and GNOME Shell: "I'm personally pretty interested in getting applications and the compositor properly synchronized so the user sees everything drawn as smoothly and cleanly as possible."
Thurman is excited about the opportunity to get a fresh start and rethink how to interact with the user:


We have been working for ten years in a mindset which is now, of course, ten years old. There's only so far you can go in a purely evolutionary line of development. That said, I'm very glad the existing Metacity codebase is being integrated into Mutter and not thrown away.

The new directions of CSS-based themes and application-aware window management finally make GNOME's window manager more than a dull but necessary component. However, the developers have made some decisions under the hood that will not be popular in some circles. There is no fallback option for those that cannot or do not want to use compositing, and the integration of GNOME Shell with Mutter shuts out alternative window managers. But maybe this is the price that must be paid for innovation.


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About Hugo Repetto

Ubuntu is a Linux distribution that offers an operating system predominantly focused on desktop computers but also provides support for servers. Based on Debian GNU / Linux, Ubuntu focuses on ease of use, freedom in usage restriction, regular releases (every 6 months) and ease of installation.
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