back to article Party like it's 1999: CDE Unix desktop REBORN

The original Unix desktop, the Common Desktop Environment or CDE, is back. Seven years after Sun replaced it with GNOME on Solaris, the Open Group's Common Desktop Environment has returned, now fully open-source and with a modern Linux port. CDE was developed about 20 years ago as a unified desktop environment for all the …


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  1. AlanS
    Paris Hilton

    Fond memories!

    10 years ago I used mainly Sun and HP machines under CDE. When I had to install software on Apple Mac or MS Windows machines, they were so clumsy by comparison.

    Paris, 'cos she's an icon.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Fond memories!

      I was at Durham Uni 2000 to 2003 (doing CS) and and the Unix workstations that we used, Solaris if I remember rightly, were running this. I thought it looked quite interestingly retro even then. My non-CS friends who knew nothing but Windows (Mac was dead on its arse at the time) thought it was hilarious and refused to use it, even though you could still surf and get to all your emails, and you could completely cut out the humungous queue in the library computer room by going to the handful of these workstations sitting un-loved at the back. Happy days!

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

      2. James Le Cuirot
        Thumb Up

        Re: Durham Uni

        Heh snap. You must have been in the year above me but I had exactly the same thoughts about it. Do you know if they still use it? They were trialling Linux servers running GNOME on Fedora by the time I left.

        1. sjcarr

          Re: Durham Uni

          Solaris+CDE has been replaced with Fedora Linux+Gnome and Ubuntu :(

          1. JEDIDIAH

            Re: Durham Uni

            Even on Solaris, Gnome replaced CDE a long time ago.

            CDE is more like "partying like it's 1989".

            By 1999, the two main efforts to replace and forget CDE were already under way.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Durham Uni

          Not sure to be honest mate, haven't been back to the department itself since I left. You used to be able to telnet into the Unix servers from outside networks, pretty sure that doesn't work any more, which might indicate they've been switched off, but equally it might just mean they got a bit more security-conscious, or changed the names of them or something.

          Nice to meet a fellow CS graduate in the wild - sorry I'm A/C as posting from work and I know my boss reads these threads in his lunch hour!

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Durham Uni

            I remember those workstations from way back in 1993 , using gopher to grab stuff from around the world. I recall a hack which would allow you to pop up an image on someone else's workstation , had great fun sending unsuspecting victims a surprise image :0).

            When i was there they were all hostnamed after star systems.

      3. asdf

        Re: Fond memories!

        I am a bit older (more like early mid 90s in school) and I always found CDE on the unix boxes to be pretty sleek and exotic and cool to work with. Later though once Netscape was the only browser in town they become less useful. Oh sure Netscape technically ran on CDE but the code was of such garbage quality that it would often bring the whole unix system down. Pretty impressive really being it was unix. Microsoft winning the browser wars wasn't all due to the windows monopoly.

        1. chrrris

          Re: Fond memories!

          Memories - hah! We still use Netscape on OSF/1 under CDE on a daily basis. It forms the basis of our online help system. Nothing wrong with it! Unstable - no way.

          Mind you, on a closed network, we don't have to contend with modern websites.

          1. asdf

            Re: Fond memories!

            Netscape got somewhat better towards the end (anything after 4 though was basically a new code base) but there was a reason they threw everything open source all of sudden. There code had become unmaintainable and the community quickly realized it and rewrote the thing from the ground up.

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Fond memories!

        At Durham there is still a little bit of Unix left for legacy use, but it's the same two servers as from the early 2000s (altair and deneb); full details are at

        The vast majority of all desktops are now Windows 7 straight, or in a few rooms can dual boot with Fedora. There are no dedicated Unix or Linux terminals around anymore, the only dedicated non Windows desktops are a few managed Macs for certain staff. Most Linux work is done on a timesharing system over ssh.

        Use of Unixes or BSDs in student bedrooms has also been banned - you have to be running an up to date Linux, Mac or a non-server version of Windows.

        Even the HPC cluster is now Linux running on a load of HP blades.

        It is still possible to ssh into the linux service remotely (ssh -X, but the Security Hardening project has made it a little tougher to get remote access through other means.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Fond memories!

      Ten years ago, you thought Win and Mac were clumsy by comparison to CDE? I think that says more about you than it does about CDE, Mac OS or Windows. I used CDE in the early 90s and even then it had a stark, utilitarian feel, when compared to other GUIs available at the time.

      1. K

        Re: Fond memories!

        I had some good times hacking up CDE ... But have to agree with you, it was a piece of dogs meet. but the late 90's Windows and MacOS had far exceeded CDE.

        1. Mint Sauce

          Re: Fond memories!

          I have memories of SunTools on SunOS, from the early 90's. I think that pre-dated CDE? It certainly looks more like what I remember DEC ULTRIX workstations of the same era using. Ohhh. now I want a circular mouse with those offset wheels underneath :-D


      2. This post has been deleted by its author

        1. andy mcandy
          Thumb Up

          Re: Fond memories!

          me too :)

          when i saw the screengrab, my first though was "thats the amiga workbench". nice, utilitarian (as already mentioned) GUI.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Fond memories!

          "True it was not as pretty as some GUIs but what do you want on a server running Solaris in a server room? No, it did its job well and looking at the screen shot does bring back happy memories"

          Who said anything about servers? I was using it on Sun Sparc Stations and x-terms, the Windows or Mac machines were always more popular at my uni. Which also sort of suggests that the vast amount of cash paid for these workstations was, even then, taking the piss a bit.

    3. MacroRodent

      Re: Fond memories!

      Fond memories? I recall occasionally meeting it on 1990's RISC workstations and thinking "what a bloated piece of ****". My preferred desktop was based on twm at the time, which had about 1/10 of the resource usage of CDE and started almost instantly, even on 1990's hardware.

      Of course, by modern bloatware standards, CDE is now probably really lightweigh (at least until enthusiasts get around to "modernising" it). But I suspect nowadays it does not have any practical advantages over XFCE, which in the Linux world is more mainstream and thus better supported (just today I heard Debian is going to make XFCE the default DE in their next version). But let all flowers bloom...

      1. Synonymous Howard

        Re: Fond memories! - +1 for twm

        I remember when twm came out as "tom's window manager" before it was renamed .. but then again I remember the transition from X10 to X11.

        I hated the Motif widgets that CDE was built on (UI design by committee was never nice) ... always felt my eyes bleed when I used it .. too many nested rectangles and a bloated API/callbacks ... but then I did write my own X11 widget set 8-)

        Nothing beat twm + xvt (the xterm replacement written by ex-colleague JB@ukc) for a minimalist developer desktop .. + xclock & xeyes if you must have some eye-candy !-\ Ah, happy hacking days, now replaced by meetings and reports.

      2. Anonymous Coward

        Re: Fond memories!

        Do you mean rewriting it in C++?

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Fond memories!

      **SIGH** Twenty years ago I was using VUE on HP-UX workstations and then they introduced CDE. Not sure which one I preferred.

      And I still occasionally develop the odd program using Motif.

      1. Denarius Silver badge

        Re: Fond memories!

        same here. decades ago used Motif HPUX workstation. Only used a mac for M$ software for corporate needs.

        Windows at home, but always wanted that unix feel there. Gnome never impressed. BTW ITIRC that KDE was meant to be an open rip off of CDE ? Then it got big.

  2. jake Silver badge

    I see a place for a modern variant of CDE.

    I've been using version 2.1 on old Sun gear for years.

    Most of my desktop systems will remain KDE 3.x, though.

    1. DrXym

      Re: I see a place for a modern variant of CDE.

      XFCE started off as a clone of CDE and still captures some of the same experience as CDE but is more configurable and modern. I think it's more suitable to lightweight deployments where memory footprint or graphical performance would rule out something like GNOME or KDE.

      1. nematoad
        Thumb Up

        Re: I see a place for a modern variant of CDE.

        I use XFCE now since KDE moved to 4.

        My main machine has a dual core AMD CPU. 4 Gb of memory etc. and it really flies. Using Gnome or KDE just gets in the way and that, I think, is a welcome legacy from CDE.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: I see a place for a modern variant of CDE.

          I would switch to XFCE if it had a desktop magnifier like KDE has (as a desktop effect rather than a separate program). My eyesight is deteriorating and I need it to see the screen.

  3. Lee Dowling Silver badge

    Ah, the days when a desktop environment was just that - it drew boxes for windows, tiny little icons and got out of the way.

    Something tells me that by the time this thing is integerated with FreeDesktop standards, DBus, and all the other junk that's "necessary" nowadays, it'll be just as much a resource hog as any other.

    Seriously, people. Give me Windows 3.1 looks, and the ability to run modern programs and then get the hell out of my way. If you need to use even 16Mb RAM, I want to know why.

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. Sean Timarco Baggaley

      "If you need to use even 16Mb RAM, I want to know why."

      Triple-buffering a 2560 x 1440 pixel display requires 84 MB of RAM just for the display buffers. Most modern operating systems require the feature to provide the compositing features.

      Now, using Display PDF might seem an odd choice for a GUI, but it's also the reason for OS X's ubiquitous PDF support: it's basically 'free' for developers. And this brings us to your next request:

      "Give me Windows 3.1 looks, and the ability to run modern programs and then get the hell out of my way."

      You're asking for mutually exclusive features: a low-footprint GUI that can run "modern programs". Modern programs rely on the rich APIs and features of modern operating systems. Operating systems aren't there for the benefit of end users: they're there for the benefit of developers. End users only ever see the pretty windows and icons—the user interface—but, as you've just shown, they don't really understand what's going on under the hood, or why operating systems are designed the way they are.

      GNU / Linux distros have failed spectacularly in the consumer space precisely because the FOSS community haven't really understood the connection between that GUI and the underlying OS. If your OS forces me to jump through a thousand hoops just to get basic features into my application, why would I choose to develop for it when I can target the much more developer-friendly Windows and OS X?

      OS X lets me build a complete database-driven application without writing more than a dozen or so lines of code. I could have a basic stock control application written in a week. Add another week and it'd be running on the iPad, and possibly even the iPhone too. The secret is in the Xcode IDE and the OS X (and iOS) APIs which do so much of the heavy lifting for me.

      Windows leads the way here: Microsoft are, at heart, a developer tools company, not an OS company. (MS-DOS was bought in. Windows NT was the first fully home-grown OS Microsoft made.) Their operating systems are convenient packages of developer technologies and tools, with a nice GUI for end users to interact with them too. Visual Basic was arguably more of an attraction for corporate adoption of Windows 3.x than Microsoft Office: suddenly, custom business applications became a lot cheaper to build, allowing businesses to automate more tasks.

      CDE is a throwback to the late '80s / early '90s approach in the UNIX community of separating everything from everything else. It's a very modular approach, so you can customise it to your own needs, but it also makes it inherently more difficult to code for if your goal is that of a consistent user experience. Which is why UNIX does so well in vertical markets where customisation is desirable—e.g. Android—yet fails badly in the consumer space where consistency and ease of development are far more important.

      Your conflicting request proves my point. You literally cannot run a modern application on a 20-year-old GUI, because you can't build such applications on such flimsy foundations without expending far more effort and resources than it's worth.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        > Triple-buffering a 2560 x 1440 pixel display requires 84 MB of RAM just for the display buffers.


        2560 x 1440 x 24 bits = 11,059,200 bytes per buffer.

        Three buffers makes it 33,177,600 or 31.6 MB of RAM.

        You might want to make each pixel 32 bits to put each pixel on a 4 byte boundary.

        This would make it 2560 x 1440 x 4 x 3 = 44,236,800 bytes or 42.2 MB.

      2. jake Silver badge

        @Sean Timarco Baggaley

        "Which is why UNIX does so well in vertical markets where customisation is desirable—e.g. Android—yet fails badly in the consumer space where consistency and ease of development are far more important."

        Uh ... Sean, your commentardry has a few problems.

        For a start, Apple's "OSX" IS UNIX ...

        Secondly, I write modern software for 40 year old systems on a regular basis.

        Somehow, I doubt there is "an app" that will allow you to comprehend the above ...

      3. Ian Johnston Silver badge

        Maybe he'd prefer an OS which was designed to run quickly and in a small footprint rather than one which has 98% of an airline booking system built in to it on the off chance that a developer might want to use it? If a developer wants particular functionality on my system, they just specify some libraries in the .deb. For me that's better than having absolutely everything built in, just in case.

        (Using Lubutu, power switch to usable in fourteen seconds).

    3. P. Lee

      You can probably use twm if you like that sort of environment.

      Personally I quite like XFCE4 for its quick-load. I can netboot mythbuntu over 100mb ethernet in normal OS load times. But if I'm working all day, KDE would probably be my choice.

      Note that most apps will require KDE or Gnome installed as they use the shared libraries - kmail can't draw a text window without KDE installed and the libraries loaded.

      It will be interesting to see how the VDI space plays out. WinXP is rather efficient compared to W7 in terms of desktop resources, so I suspect there will be a lot of RAM pain when those upgrades go through.

    4. DrXym

      DBus is just mechanism built over sockets which allow messages to be broadcast or sent from one application to another via pub/sub. e.g. that new mail has arrived, or that an appointment is due, or that the printer is jammed.

      What exactly is your objection to that?

    5. /dev/null

      Windows 3.1 looks...

      Windows 3.1 looks you say? Sounds like Windows 8 is what you're after then...

  4. Colin Brett

    I liked CDE

    My first big admin project was upgrading Sun workstations from SunOS 4.x to Solaris 2.5 and higher. This included CDE, from 2.5.1, IIRC. And compared to the old Sun OpenWindows environment, CDE was much faster and easier to use. The multiple desktops were fantastic for organising my tasks (one for main work, one for internet, one for admin tasks on the main servers etc) and this set up has been a mainstay in my work ever since (whether with Gnome, KDE, CDE or Irix).

    The only desktop that doesn't allow this sort of thing is Windows, at least by default. Maybe there's some third-party virtual desktop stuff out there?

    I'm tempted to get the CDE source and give it a whirl.


    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      Re: I liked CDE

      I too loved CDE - did the job and without any distractions (if you wanted eye candy you could go buy a lava lamp and place next to your monitor).

      Given what Microsoft are laying upon windows 8 users then a port of CDE as a replacement GUI, could just be justified.

    2. PyLETS

      Re: I liked CDE

      The only desktop that doesn't allow this sort of thing is Windows, at least by default. Maybe there's some third-party virtual desktop stuff out there?

      There are various ways of running and displaying Unix/Linux apps on Windows, depending upon your level of compromise between tackyness and resource hogging. One interestingly weird but effective approach involves using Colinux (A Windows device driver which runs Linux) and combining this with Xming (an X manager running on Windows). Alternatively run the Unix/Linux app on a seperate box, launched using a Putty SSH command line, and use Xforwarding to display it using XMing on Windows. I've not found a good way to cut and paste between Linux and Window app windows running on the same desktop using XMing though.

      You may prefer using VirtualBox or VMWare running a Linux VM if your Windows hardware is up to a good enough spec - and it's worth buying AMD or Intel CPUs with hardware virtualisation support when making new purchases. Virtual machines also have their usability glitches, e.g. restricting cut and paste between systems running on the same desktop.

      1. Aaron Em

        Re: I liked CDE

        Colinux was good a half decade ago, but is now effectively dead. This is in large part because it doesn't have an x64 version; at last check (five minutes ago), they're still complaining about how much work it is, just like they've been doing ever since someone pointed out their software only runs on a 32-bit machine. Colinux also, as with any VM, requires that you dedicate to it a chunk of system resource -- CPU, disk, and RAM -- which gets annoying after a while, as does the weirdness of trying to get two completely separate paradigms to live nicely together. (In my experience, copy-paste problems are the least of it!)

        You've entirely left out Cygwin, which is a good way of running Linux apps on Windows; unlike your other mentioned options, Cygwin does require that you compile from source rather than just running a Linux binary directly, but it's got an enormous amount of prepackaged software already available, without much more effort than running yum or apt or insert your favorite package manager here -- and the full GNU toolchain is also available, along with more libraries than you can shake a stick at, so building from source isn't really a trial in most cases.

        Combined with Xming (or not), the result is as much or as little Windows as you like; you can run a fullscreen X server and use Windows purely as a HAL (though you might need to pop out for a moment to configure a wireless adapter or similar), or you can run Xming in multiwindow mode and intermingle Windows and Cygwin applications willy-nilly (like I do), or you can leave out the X server entirely and use Cygwin only for services like sshd and crond.

        And, last but not least, under Cygwin, copy-paste is supported.

      2. Colin Brett

        Re: I liked CDE @PyLETS

        "There are various ways of running and displaying Unix/Linux apps on Windows, depending upon your level of compromise between tackyness and resource hogging."

        You may have got the wrong end of the stick here, sorry. I know I can use Xming and similar to run an X login to a Unix box, blow this up to full screen and hide all the Windows stuff.

        What I meant was: is there a virtual/multiple desktop solution for Windows itself? The number of times I've seen people with multiple apps and windows running, 20+ sometimes, all crowding the taskbar at the bottom of the screen. It takes ages just to find something in an environment like that.

        A Windows GUI that can support multiple workspaces (like CDE, KDE, Gnome and all the rest mentioned in this thread) would be a major improvement to Windows. Is there such a product?


        1. Ian Johnston Silver badge
          Thumb Up

          Re: I liked CDE @PyLETS

          If you're running Windows XP (eschewing, as sensible people do, everything since) there is Microsoft Virtual Desktop Manager, available from the PowerToys section of It works pretty well, in my experience.

        2. Grass Mud Horse

          Re: I liked CDE @PyLETS

          I've been running JS Pager for more than 10 years, using the same binary today that I downloaded then. It's the first thing I install on any fresh Windows, even for friends & family. At first they don't know what it's for, later they wonder how they ever got along without it.

          The desktop selector looks a little tacky but allows a number of tweaks and generally does the job well.

        3. Bent Outta Shape

          ...virtual/multiple desktop solution for Windows...


          Has it's moments, but it's generally pretty solid and fairly configurable. And one of my Windows desktops is a full-screen Linux VM with multiple desktops itself.

        4. Aaron Em

          Windows desktop pager

          I'm a big fan of Virtual Dimension for this purpose; it's free and available from Sourceforge. You can set up as many desktops as you like, organized however you please; it handles its own hotkeys, and can recognize combinations like Ctrl+Alt+Win+Right Arrow; it doesn't, in my experience, inflict nearly the level of annoyance to be expected from most Windows desktop pagers (the Power Toy one, and JS Pager, emphatically included). Virtual Dimension does occasionally lose track of which desktop a window belongs on, and shows it on every desktop whether you want that or not, but compared to other Windows desktop pagers I've tried, that's not really much of a problem.

          (The essential difficulty here is that Windows really isn't designed to support more than one desktop at all; while I gather you can create more than one desktop API object, and even switch the display between them, you cannot move windows between them, and apparently can't do much else you'd expect to be able to. This being the case, desktop pagers are forced to fake it, usually by hiding windows which shouldn't appear on whatever desktop you're on at the moment, and in general I'd say a bit of clunkiness is to be expected no matter what you're using.)

          One mild PITA with Virtual Dimension is that it takes up some desktop real estate if you want it to show the actual desktop pager, although you can also control it via a system tray icon; if you want the pager, but don't want it to overlap maximized windows, you can use Desktop Coral (payware, but not nagware, and you can use it free forever) to carve off a chunk along one edge of your desktop in which to put the Virtual Dimension pager and maybe a dock or something, if you like.

          That's also a good way to make the most of a widescreen display's extra horizontal real estate, something I think a lot of folks would be happier with their machines if they gave some thought to doing -- take this, for example, which is a shot of my own desktop, and note that the maximized web-browser window has almost the entire height of the screen to display in, because the taskbar, Firefox tabs, et cetera, are all pushed off to the side in columns rather than taking up scanty vertical real estate.)

          Hope this helps!

  5. saundby

    I remember using HP's VUE, which is a lot of what you'll come into contact with in CDE. At the time I thought it was a bloated pig, compared to OpenLook. By the time CDE came together, it was just about right, weight and power-wise on newer workstations. CDE had some nice features for users, but was still a mess underneath for sysadmins.

  6. Anton Channing


    ...its now inevitable and just a question of when.

    1. system11
      Thumb Up

      Re: Cubuntu...

      I would donate to a Kickstarter project for that.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Cubuntu...

      Cubian or nothing for me

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Barely used it... Just enough to log on to my University account, and then launch the CAD application from a command prompt.

  8. Tim Walker

    One to try on the Pi?

    My RasPi is currently running Fluxbox under Arch Linux ARM. I've been experimenting with Awesome (tiling WM) which isn't quite doing what I thought it would, so perhaps CDE might be fun to try just for kicks...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: One to try on the Pi?

      Anything other than RISC OS is an abomination on a RPi.


      1. Tim Walker

        Re: One to try on the Pi?

        I really should give RISC OS a test drive on my RasPi - time to unearth a spare SD card from somewhere :-)

  9. pear

    I still have to look at scenes like those :(

  10. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    Oh frack! This is like the matrix ☎ going off!

    OPEN SOFTWARE FOUNDATION and the Motif Widget set vs. UNIX INTERNATIONAL and OpenWindows.

    I'm shellshocked to hell right now. Beer is the only thing keeping me alive!

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I remember getting a tour of the old Nortel plant as part of some school-work experience excursion, they were using CDE on some Sun terminals, I remember thinking that that is what proper serious business computing should look like! None of these Windows 95 clouds!

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    now what I really want...

    is Apollo's Display Manager, and the keyboard that went with it. I remember HP VUE as a bloated waste of screen real estate... but then again we were running on 24MB of RAM. By the time CDE came around the hardware had caught up with it but the waste of screen space remained... some things never change, it seems.

  13. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge


    No thanks. Reminds me of the bad old days:

    in the blue corner, weighing 5000lbs, the design-by-committe CDE on System V UNIX™. Overengineered, 10 years behind the curve and impossible to use without a 3 button mouse. In the red corner, weighing a nimble 120lbs we have the BSDs and FVWM, with revolutionary new commands like "top" and a UI you could configure to look nice.

    It's OSI vs TCP or CORBA vs, well, anything. Evolution favours the nimble. Although kudos to the Open Group for putting this out there - it's a part of our collective history after all.

  14. Martin 37
    Thumb Down

    Brings back memories ..

    ..and not good ones. Motif - Ugh. Take it out and bury it but make sure it's dead first. The Hello World programs were about 200 lines. Even Windows can do more with less.

    The colours, as you can see were grotesque. Wow! We got more than 16 colours! Lets see how many we can use at once! What do you mean turquoise and pink don't go well together? Add in orange and purple and we're good to go. That was the days of named X11 colours.

    About the only good thing was that you could save sessions, so next time you logged in all your terminal windows opened up again in the same place. Something Apple has just "invented" in 2012. Of course, I never used anything except terminal windows - since you did everything serious via the command line, why would you?

    Is that really a graphical calculator taking up 50% of the screen space? Real men use bc.

  15. Adam Trickett

    There was even a Windows 3.1 port of bits

    HP ported bits of their Visual User Environment to Windows 3.1 and I use to love that, it was so much better than the Microsoft Program Manager. I think the Windows port was sold on to Starfish software but it died a death after Windows 95 came out.

    While it's good that it's now open, it's rather to late to make much of a difference. But you never know perhaps some of it's bit's may resurface somewhere...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: There was even a Windows 3.1 port of bits

      It was an alternative to the Program Manager, could be used as an alternative to the Windows 8 miniMetro \u0008\u0008\u0008\u0008\u0008 sorry, I should say, rover100, interface perhaps?

  16. Andy 115

    Still use it...

    On 16 HP b2600's and 5 HP 745's running HP-UX

    Looked dated when they (745's) first went in over a decade ago, looked dated when the system was expanded with b2600's. Still looks dated.

    BUT, the system is reliable AND it works (which is a damn sight more than can be said for its replacement which has been developed on Windows)....

  17. DrXym

    A horrible experience

    An open source CDE should serve as a reminder of the rot that almost killed Unix. CDE was obsolete practically from the moment it launched. It barely qualified as a desktop since it was little more than a dock, a few tools and a file manager. It looked awful because of Motif and what configuration it offered often had to be performed by hand on text files through trial and error. The best that could be said of CDE was it looked better than what it replaced and brought some commonality to the various Unix derivatives. Sadly it just looked bad by comparison to "lesser" operating systems and it got worse as time went along.

    Thankfully CDE's days were numbered when GNOME and KDE started to mature. Both at least behaved like a proper desktop and allowed users to visually customize its behaviour and appearance in a way that suited them.

    Fast forward 12 years and Linux is within spitting distance of Windows and OS X for usability and thus a vast improvement to where it was. It's too bad it took so long to get there.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A horrible experience

      CDE predates GNOME and KDE by a number of years, and compared to what was available at the time (Windows 3.1, Mac OS System 7) it definitely qualified as a desktop. As for configuration, it was only trial and error if you didn't bother to read the documentation. Xt (the tool kit framework that underpins Motif) supports something called resources, which are very logical if you took the time to understand them. You could then use editres to query an applications resources so that you could override them in your configuration file. That was assuming you wanted to go beyond the settings that could be changed in the GUI configuration interface.

      As for the usability of a Linux desktop nowadays, I feel it's way beyond that of Windows and OS X. Having just had to endure several months using a Windows 7 PC for the first time since 1997, I'm shocked how inconsistent, unintuitive and awkward the Windows UI is. As for OS X, it peaked in usability terms around the time of Tiger, and has suffered since as Apple started to ignore their own UI guidelines and then tried to merge touch screen paradigms into a desktop interface (something that looks set to continue as OS X and iOS merge, while MS are set to make the same mistakes with Windows 8). Meanwhile, GNOME shell is actually quite elegant once you get over the initial shock of the new, and there's always fallback mode or something like Cinnamon for a more traditional desktop.

      (I can't comment on KDE or XFCE since I don't use them).

      1. DrXym

        Re: A horrible experience

        I'm quite aware of its history and never said GNOME or KDE were contemporary with it. However it is clear that GNOME and KDE were born out of frustration with it, in terms with its closed nature, the glacial development pace and the desire to have a proper desktop rather than a launcher and a few tools.

        It's also clear that CDE was inferior to contemporary desktops even when it launched and especially by 1997 or so when it was merged in with Motif and stewarded by the OSF.

        I also like GNOME 3 a lot and have said a lot of good things about it. But I don't believe it is as usable as Windows 7 or OS X, as in if you sat 10 users of varying skills and computer experience in front of Windows, OS X or GNOME and asked them to perform tasks and measured them on it that GNOME would still come behind in some regards. I believe that may change with Windows 8 which IMO will be a debacle for desktop users.

        1. JEDIDIAH

          Re: A horrible experience

          Nonsense. Windows would fare well simply because people are used to it. Gnome would also fare well because it is close enough. MacOS would cause some frustration to people too used to Windows/Gnome.

          In general most people aren't going to be doing much to stress any desktop. So most of the differences won't really matter.

          Younger users won't even be aware that the three represent distinct products. They will view our platform partisanship as something quaint and old fashioned.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    There's quite a bit of activity on the CDE mailing list at the moment. Patches coming in to clean up 64 bit issues, replace dodgy function calls such as tmpnam(), and to port the code to BSD systems. It's also worth noting that the OpenCDE project is now defunct, since the main people behind it are now working on the genuine article!

    This may ultimately turn out to be a nostalgic endeavour, but it's fun. In my case, I ran the Motif window manager for many years, and used to program user interfaces with the Motif tool kit so I hold some affection for it (although I preferred the API of Sun's XView tool kit). GTK+ and Qt have eclipsed Motif for technical as well as licence reasons, but I still look forward to running a stable release CDE on my laptop.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    HP also brought out the HP Dashboard product for Windows which was a kind of CDE for Windows:

    It was a bit buggy though but neat a bit like CDE. I liked the way CDE icons would change to show the status, something MS didn't have at the time with Win 3.1. Win 95 was just emerging and we ended up with the hideous System Tray.

  20. Virag0

    long time user.

    I was using CDE on Solaris SPARC until January this year, when my Sun workstation was finally

    replaced by an iMac with Lion on it. I used to always get comments from various co-workers that I was actually a dinosaur, but consultants were always impressed by my ability to navigate, admin and modify CDE to do

    my bidding and look the way I liked...... Now the iMac gets a lot of comment - I am apparently not a dinosaur

    anymore but a clueless hipster with aspirations toward wearing black and making everyone else jealous with

    the very shiny 27" screen.....

    1. Kubla Cant

      Re: long time user.

      I don't want to be unkind, but are the eccentric line breaks in your post typical of an iMac with Lion?

      If so, can I recommend a marvelously powerful editor called Notepad? It's available on Windows 3.1.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Great, just what the open source community needs - yet another poor-quality GUI that's years and years behind OS X in terms of absolutely everything.

    Even in its heydey CDE was awful. I hope it dies a quick death.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Your wonderfully negative opinion along with the others inspired me to create a new user on my Solaris machine and set CDE as the environment. I then spent about 20 minutes experimenting.

      Its been about 5 to 6 years since I last used CDE. I'd need to work out how to do a couple of things that I currently can do in Gnome but I might switch back. I've always liked being able to reduce windows to an icon that could be positioned anywhere on screen.

      Most of my work is done in xterm sessions so I don't want or need a fancy gui.

      1. Wensleydale Cheese

        @AC 12:34 GMT

        "I've always liked being able to reduce windows to an icon that could be positioned anywhere on screen."

        And if I remember correctly you could send escape sequences to do things with those icons. I used some monitoring apps which changed the icons different colours depending on the severity of alerts and that was useful.

        "Most of my work is done in xterm sessions so I don't want or need a fancy gui."

        Exactly-. Though my first job was to customise the colours of those windows.

  22. Peter Mc Aulay

    Not even the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia...

    ...could make me look back fondly on CDE. It was a bloated rotting pig and saying it runs quickly today is like saying Windows XP (or indeed, 3.1) is lightweight and elegant: very, very relative.

    Beer, because obviously those neurons need more scrubbing.

  23. FIA Silver badge

    And of course, old-time Linux veterans might welcome a dose of nostalgia and the chance to make Linux look just like Proper UNIX™.

    Eh? This looks nothing like OSX??


  24. peter collard

    CDE was outdated before it was launched

    From memory CDE was a collection of bits that no one wanted individually. It didn't have anything really to commend it other than it followed IBMs "standards" for desktops produced in the days of 3270 dumb mainframe screens, and copied by Windows.

    I suppose the main thing to commend it is that there would be no patent issues as it preceded such rubbish. So that just leaves the copyright issues.

    Is this really the best that the younger generation of programmers can produce? Cant they produce something better than us grey hairs had to contend with?

  25. Paul Shirley

    do I spy a Zombie in that company list?

    Maybe time to run away (quite slowly) from any product listing SCO in it's contributers... the zombie corpse might try claiming to own it. Like a certain other product the Open Group also owns but SCO still claims to own the API for ;)

  26. HaydnH

    I used to love CDE, I spent far too much time getting to know all the config files though. I'm suprised there isn't any love for WindowMaker in this comments section.

  27. Hoagiebot
    Thumb Up

    CDE is 20% cooler with ponies!

    Check out the photos of the Sun SPARCstation 2 running the Solaris 7 CDE desktop in this article:

    "Rainbow Dash Pulls a Kevin Flynn" - Equestria Daily

    Rainbow Dash can make anything look good, even CDE! :)


    Full disclosure for those of you who are interested: I am the same "Hoagiebot" that is mentioned in the Equestria Daily article above, and the SPARCstation 2 that was photographed in the article is from my exhibit at last year's Vintage Computer Festival Midwest (VCF-MW). I had spruced the machine's CDE desktop up with the custom MLP:FiM "Rainbow Dash" X PictMap backdrops to make it more eye-catching and a better conversation piece for the festival's attendees. The other items shown in the photo are Sun Microsystems-related in nature, and were also part of my little exhibit. The plush toy dog and cheetah were actually promotional items handed out by Sun Microsystems at some of their conferences back during the 1990's. The plush dog was based on a real Greater Swiss Mountain Dog named "Network" the dog, which was Sun's animal mascot through the late 1990's and a real-life pet of Sun co-founder and then-CEO Scott McNealy. The plush cheetah was handed out to promote the Sun UltraSPARC III microprocessor, which had the development codename of "cheetah." The blue mat that the two plush toys are sitting on is actually a Sun Microsystems Field Service Kit that I own. The second Sun SPARCstation that you can partially see in the far right of the photos is an even older Sun SPARCstation 1.

    It's a shame that Oracle no longer produces Sun workstations-- you can't really put technicolored cartoon ponies on database appliances! What fun is that! *sigh*

  28. Jay 2

    I never really got to grips with CDE on Solaris kit, but I did spend a rather large amount of time messing about with HP VUE on 712 workstations running HP-UX 9.x and 10.x.

  29. John 62


    OS X's stacks are crap compared to CDE's

  30. Amorous Cowherder

    Oh God, it was horrible then and it's horrible now!

    Let it go and stop living in the past!

  31. 45RPM Silver badge

    Ugh! Horrible

    I used CDE on Solaris and on VMS many years ago, and I'd kind of hoped that many years ago would be where it stayed. I concede that some talented developer might pick it up and turn it from an ugly piece of crap into a beautiful swan of a user interface - it's possible. But why? There are beautiful UIs in existence already, and then there are halfway decent UIs that wouldn't take too much effort to beautify further. CDE isn't worth the effort.

    The only thing that CDE has going for it over Windows is that it's sitting on a Posix compliant OS (usually - not always, admittedly). It has nothing to commend it over Gnome, KDE, Unity, Mac OS X…

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    CDE on GUI Gallery

    SunView from the 80s

  33. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Spent a lot of time on Solaris boxes looking at CDE applications, although preferred IRIX on my SGI Indigo workstation.

    CDE has brought back all those memories of motif. Nice at the time but there are far better *nix window managers now.

  34. Wensleydale Cheese

    Happy memories here

    I'd just started a new job and had a shiny new Alphastation with a whacking great DEC monitor (so bulky and heavy that the box warned that it needed two people to lift), which ran CDE.

    It got the job done and was far preferable to the NT4 box sitting on the same desk.

  35. Pigeon

    At least I understand it a bit.

    My ancient Sun Workstation runs CDE, and most of the software is Motif (I run Motif MWM on my laptop too). It's clunky, but no-one has pointed out that it has a good facility for sysadmins. You can install menu items at user-level, server-level, and network-level. It's still pretty primitive, though. I've got used to the consistent button-press behavior, hints, and shortcuts of Motif (missing in many other desktops for Linux).

    And my favourite application is xteddy :-)

  36. Mage Silver badge

    Stark, utilitarian feel

    Well, tidied up and and bit more functional, then it won't get in way like Win8 / Vista-7, OS X and some of the more barmy newer Linux desktops.

    Folks need to realise that ONE DOES NOT FIT ALL! You need different flavours of GUI for different classes of device.

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Open Group

    Now if they would just open source OSF/1...

  38. Denarius Silver badge

    that maybe connected

    noted somewhere that dtksh has also been released under one of the open source licenses. Liked the idea when I frist saw it on SUN boxes, but found the code to do anything was so verbose it made COBOL look concise.

  39. me n u

    will it be usable on Solaris 11?

    Oracle dropped CDE as of Solaris 11. Will there be source compatible code for Solaris 11 on SPARC?

  40. RAMChYLD


    If it means less CPU consumption, I may just try running Steam for Linux once that comes out, just to see how much FPS it would gain me compared to XFCE or any of those fancy blingy desktops that run OpenGL 24/7 like Gnome, Unity or KDE.

  41. Anonymous Coward

    Why At All ?

    The notion that there is a need of a Windows-style Window manager is itself a fallacy. The whole point-and-click metaphor is a huge waste of time and precision.

    People who cannot be fsked to learn how to copy files using bash should not be let close to computers, as these people will only mess up things. I mean this 100% serious - computers should be operated in a proper manner and it should not be dumbed down. All it will do is to create hugely stupid and error-prone business processes.

    I am currently working on a program which is twisted into the MS Office crapology, because the super-corpo is so in love with Office. Technically all of it could be done with open standards like LaTeX, SVG and HTML, but the idiots who control the money definotily want an MS Office "solution".

    The result is an unreliable, complicated and error-prone hairball. It could be rock-solid if it were made out of a toolkit of small, orthogonal Unix-like commands stringed together in script files. But no, we need an abomination of click-drag, C++/VBA monster, slow as hell and unreliable as hell.

    An X11 display and a way to start xterm is all we need. Everything else is not computing, it is a distraction from computing.

    1. Anonymous Coward


      ..try to document a point-click-drag business process in a text file. It is virtually impossible to read such "documentation".

      Writing down a sequence of bash commands plus some prose is extremely precise and reproducable, though. Maybe we can hang the inventors of the Mouse with the mouse cable.

  42. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Solaris/CDE: Still use it on the terminal servers for our LSF compute farms.

    Rock solid. Never goes down. Ever.

    I still prefered OpenWindows running olvwm though.....

  43. b166er

    Presumably this was the OS on Sun SparcStation 20's?

    Lehman Brothers were using them when I started there.

    They stopped using them in favour of Compaq Workstation's with dual Pentium Pro's and NT 3.51/4

    They said it was because Sparc 20's cost $20,000 (just found this which states 'Yet is priced at only $18,995 for 32 megabytes of memory' :O,+SPARCserver+20%3B+Reduces+prices...-a017545302) as opposed to the $3000 price tag for the Compaq's, but I reckon it was so they could install Hauppauge TV cards in the Compaq's :D

  44. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    fvwm and openmotif

    Yeah, the sun and HP workstations ran CDE when I was in college too. I didn't care for it. I built a copy of FVWM (*not* FVWM2, which although reconfigureable looked like a Win95 clone out of the box...) on PA-RISC, one on SPARC, and a little shell script so I could replace CDE w/ FVWM on my startup (with the script picking the right binary depending on which type of UNIX box I was on.) (FVWM is the F? Virtual Window Manager. Per the docs, even the creator that named it FVWM doesn't remember what the F stood for 8-).

    I'm all for nostalgia though, this is one of the things I love about Linux (and UNIX in general) is the modularity. Want to run a 25 year old window manager? Sure, no problem! 8-)

    Anyway... if anyone wants to mess with CDE and needs a Motif library, OpenMotif came out in like the 1990s and is a (as far as I know) 100% clone of Motif. Since back then Motif was not only not open source but cost 100s of dollars, and was just a pretty simply graphical toolkit, it was cloned. openmotif wasn't just source compatible, the few apps I ran looooong ago that expected the Motif shared library would happily run with the openmotif shared library instead.

  45. SteveThomsit

    I've used CDE at work most days for the last 14 years (now via Citrix!) and in all that time I've used precisely two applications: Terminal and Calculator.

  46. Jock in a Frock

    I use CDE on HP-UX for management of our company's transmission equipment. It's slow, buggy, unreliable, ugly and under-powered. However that's probably down to the poor implementation my company have deployed.

    We have hundreds of staff using this platform, and I expect they're all logging into the same half dozen boxes.

  47. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Proper" Unix?

    # The post is required, and must contain letters

    # /bin/sh: The not found

    # _

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Maybe should quit computers and go into the construction industry. Then your intellect will never be challenged by a proper operating system such as Unix or VMS.

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