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Getting GNOME 2 going on Debian

A step-by-step guide to installing GNOME 2 for Debian users

(LinuxWorld) -- Got Debian? Don't got GNOME 2? Not surprising. Debian doesn't get nearly as much attention as other distributions when it comes to updating software packages, least of all desktop environments like KDE and GNOME. There are good reasons for this, and bad ones, but either way it's reality.

The problem with packages like KDE and GNOME is that you often have to wander away from the standard Debian servers to get the latest versions. This introduces the potential for unresolved dependencies or even package and library conflicts. If you're a Debian user, you can look on the bright side in this case. You may be able to find Red Hat or Mandrake RPMs for the latest KDE or GNOME packages before you find packages for any other Linux platform, but in my experience, I've seen far more RPMs introduce unresolved dependencies and cause resolution headaches than when I update software in Debian.

It is also a problem that seems to be confined to the testing and unstable distribution branches of Debian. That's cold comfort if you want to run the latest KDE or GNOME, however, since you are likely to be running either testing or unstable in those cases. But not too cold. I run the unstable branch, so I encounter the most problems possible, yet I've been able to resolve all of them easily. Unless RPM management has evolved dramatically over the past year or two, I'm happy using Debian instead of RPM-based distributions.

If you're also running Debian, here's how to install GNOME 2. (Thanks goes to the Hadess Web site for this information. See resources for link.) Login as root (or whatever administrator account you prefer to use) and add lines like these to your /etc/apt/sources.list file.

deb http://ftp.uk.debian.org/debian/ ../project/experimental main
deb-src http://ftp.uk.debian.org/debian/ ../project/experimental main

If you're a long time Debian user, you already know that you should substitute the ftp.uk.debian.org portion with a mirror site that is closer to you. If you're not a long-time Debian user, now you know that's what you should do.

All you have to do now is install GNOME 2. Here's how to do it. Login as the administrator or root and issue the following commands. You can omit the first two commands if you like. I include them here to make sure you're running the latest version of all your other packages before you bother installing GNOME 2.

The -u switch simply makes apt-get show you all the packages it is about to remove, update and install, which gives you a chance to abort the procedure if it is about to do anything you wouldn't like. According to the Hadess site, you should probably install the following packages as well: fam and msttcorefonts, which is why I included the third command. This command won't do anything harmful if you already have one or both of these packages installed.

apt-get update
apt-get dist-upgrade -u
apt-get install fam msttcorefonts
apt-get -t experimental install gnome2

Mixed impressions

Before I give you my first impression of GNOME 2, let me be clear that my impressions are not necessarily based on GNOME 2 as you will experience it, but GNOME 2 as it happened to install on my particular system. This distinction can be important, since I have a few custom packages installed that can create problems unique to my system. For example, I have my own PNG and Image Magick libraries that take precedence over the same Debian libraries. Once upon a time, these libraries caused problems for KDE 2 and KDE 3 on Debian, which is why I replaced the Debian versions with my own. These problems may have since been resolved, but I haven't yet backed out to the Debian libraries.

Given that many of my problems may be unique (or at least limited to people with similarly configured systems), here's what I experienced.

First, GNOME 2 doesn't seem to like Sawfish and I can't figure out why not. I run many different window managers and desktop environments, so I am used to starting GNOME with the following command:

xinit /usr/bin/gnome-session

As far as I know, GNOME is supposed to use Sawfish as its window manager. Yet when I start GNOME 2, it usually seems to start Blackbox as the default window manager. (It used to start Icewm, but I uninstalled Icewm to see what would happen. What happened is that it starts Blackbox.) It doesn't seem to matter that I've used the gconf-editor to set the default window manager to sawfish. Somehow or another, it eventually sets it back to Blackbox without my permission. I can use gconf-editor to set it back to Sawfish, after which GNOME 2 will start Sawfish for a while.

If you haven't used the gconf-editor, you're in for a real surprise. The gconf-editor brings the pleasure of managing the Windows registry to GNOME 2. In return, I suggest we find the person whose idea it was to create the gconf-editor, tie that person to a chair and make him or her watch home videos of the Windows 95 launch over and over again until they repent and destroy all traces of this program so that it is removed from the history of GNOME 2 forever.

Even when I have Sawfish running, I find GNOME 2 to be incredibly buggy on my system. There are times when the Sawfish window menu simply refuses to appear. Whenever I click on the menu button in the title bar, an error message appears on the console window to tell me that the system menu is already open. Then there are times when I can't seem to give a window the proper focus without clicking on it several times.

Granted, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but GNOME, GTK, and Sawfish are range from boring to hideous in the eye of this beholder. Nautilus 2, the file manager, is very attractive, but I haven't figured out why it can't display a simple Web page. Instead, it displays the page as text and offers to display it in Lynx, Mozilla, Netscape, or some other Web browser. I know that it once used a default HTML rendering engine, and I even seem to recall that it could use Gecko, the Mozilla engine. Surely there is some configuration setting somewhere that will make Nautilus 2 behave this way again, but I haven't found it yet.

Bottom line

In the end, my first impression of GNOME 2 has been very negative, but I have not come to any firm conclusions about it yet. It's obvious that I'm experiencing several configuration problems, some of which may be simple to correct. I'm not quite willing to bash GNOME 2 for these glitches yet. If I find out it's not just a matter of education or simple installation and configuration errors on my part, then I'll start the bash fest. Stay tuned.

More Stories By Nicholas Petreley

Nicholas Petreley is a computer consultant and author in Asheville, NC.

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