Sometimes I like to think I know how John the Baptist must have felt. He was described as the lone voice crying in the Wilderness (John 1:23). From time to time I hear echoes, but nothing solid. The like minds are all isolated, as far as I can tell. Many share my thoughts, but no one seems ready to commit time and resources to it. I’m talking about the Linux/Unix console as desktop.
Of course, I overstate the case. You can find a few recent attempts — and some not so recent — to hightlight the current possibilities. Still, what they describe falls short of my dreams. If what I read on Usenet and other sites is any indicator, I’m in good company. In fact, I’d even accept a modified framebuffer GUI, as long as it didn’t require the 50-100MB footprint that X takes these days. I have read that it’s possible to use the framebuffer driver for odd-ball graphics chips, but that’s just X at a slow speed. As a non-coder, I have no idea what’s involved, so don’t expect a high level of technical discussion from me. My reading on the framebuffer has only proven to me there’s no documentation for the average user. Without some more expert guidance, I am unlikely to differentiate between the potential for such things as the plain console, framebuffer, SVGAlibs, and whatever else applies to this subject.
So there are a few good apps for the console, indeed. I’ve managed to work that way at times when helping someone with a machine that lacked sufficient RAM to run X. If I had to, I could get my work done that way, too. I wouldn’t like it much. I am aware of several projects that bring a partial measure of comfort to the console, but none that gives me what I need. For example,
screen allows you to work with multiple console “desktops” without having to log into another console. However, I know of no simple way to make it work with
screen grabs too many important keystrokes for internal use. I’m playing with
elinks as an alternative to
lynx, which I’ve used for a long time. They both do some things to approach the usefulnesss of Arachne for DOS.
Therein we find something to envy. DOS can’t hold a candle to Linux/Unix for all the security and stability, not to mention networking, but it beats the console for apps any day. There are a few programs that have bridged the gap by appearing on both —
joe, for example. Still, there is to my knowledge nothing that even approaches a word processor for the console. As one whose primary computer use is as a writer, that’s the holy grail. In DOS there are dozens. There was at one time a console version of WP8, if you could shell out the $800 (US) for a copy. There was a full suite for Unix, called Enable, available up until about 1990 or so, that offered the whole kit: word processor, spreadsheet, database, and other goodies. It was sold for DOS, too. At least one other company claims to have a Linux console office suite, but the test version won’t run on recent distros. The closest Linux comes is a raft of plain text editors. Those are all great, except that not one is primarily a writer’s tool. All are coder tools first, with varying features that mimic word processing needs to some degree. Even then, we run into the problem that character-mode printing support is poor to none. I realize that usually requires the app have its own printer drivers, so I can’t comment too much. Still, I miss being able to get high-speed printing in raw mode with italics and bold print. Yes, I know, almost nobody else cares about raw-mode printing. Humor me, okay?
I’ve seen a pair of spreadsheets, but with little interoperability with other console apps. I’m not aware of any database applications that would work like an address book, for example. To my knowledge, darn few apps that work with a mouse in Xterm work with gpm. As it is, Linux ditros have gotten away from console mousing, compared to Unix, where it’s the default to have it running. In FreeBSD, for example, the console mouse is more or less scooped up for X use. In Linux, the last time I tried it the thing crashed X. Still, even if we accept the necessity of a GUI of sorts, I’m not convinced X is the best answer for everyone. Yet, as far as I know, there really is no other answer. Be it pure console, semi-GUI or full GUI, I’d love to see someone seriously pursue Linux/Unix desktop use for the home/office without the bottomless pit of computer power that is X.