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This upcoming Ubuntu move to Unity as its Desktop Manager, got me wondering where the modular line lies between a Desktop Manager and X.

My understanding is that X is a window manager, and window = GUI.

Is the Desktop actually needed at all, to run GUI apps?
eg. Can X exist without a Desktop Manager, and can GUI apps be launched from the terminal running in X (which may have to be auto-started with X)...

I can launch a GUI app from the terminal now (Gnome desktop), but I don't know if that is based on a dependancy to the Desktop.

I may be completely on the wrong track here... but that's what questions are for ;)

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To give an example: Using X11-over-SSH and Xming I can use Eclipse on Windows and have everything compile and run on my Linux installation, that by just installing X11 and nothing on top of that. – Tom Wijsman Oct 26 '10 at 12:59
up vote 9 down vote accepted

X is a service that listens to requests from its clients (= applications) to paint windows and also passes on input device events to those applications. One of these applications is the window manager (e.g. in case of GNOME that's Metacity or Compiz).

And a desktop environment like GNOME, etc. is actually a collection of applications that are meant to be used together to provide a more or less comfortable user experience; usually it includes a window manager, a session manager, some sort of application launcher, etc.

And yes, it's possible to start any GUI application (if it is an X client of course) on a bare X, but e.g. without a window manager all windows will have no frame (no border, no titlebar) and are put in the same position by default (the upper left corner). X itself is rather "dumb" when it comes to such things...

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Great... So unless I exclusively want a non-gui terminal (which I don't) I need one of the desktop managers to work all the different windows and apps into a usable and typically consistant style... hence the different Desktop Managers styles; like different makes of cars. They do the same thing (more or less) but have a different look and feel... and X is the low-level graphical engine under the bonnet/hood... (and you have answered another of my un-asked questinns too: I had been wondering where Metacity fitted into the picture, and now I know) ... Thanks – Peter.O Oct 26 '10 at 8:58
You need a window manager or even a DE to make an X session somewhat usable, but there is a whole range of them, from rather simplistic (say, dwm or icewm) to very complete/complex (GNOME & KDE). – JanC Oct 26 '10 at 9:19

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