CDE in #Ubuntu 16.10


CDE (Common Desktop Environment) is an old-school desktop environment for UNIX.

My first contact with UNIX was in 1992, where I was studying a Masters in Industrial Mathematics jointly with Stratchclyde University and GCU (Glasgow Caledonian University). The latter university was about to change its name from Glasgow Polytechnic at the time.

Stratchclyde University ran Sun workstations, whilst GCU ran Windows. Needless to say, I preferred the Strathclyde computers, as it was my opinion that Windows machines didn’t really “do” anything. GCU did have quite a big UNIX machine located in the library. You could use a terminal there, but it was inconvenient. I think I only used it once.

One of our GCU lecturers made us do some FORTRAN programming as part of the course, which we did by connecting to the library’s computer via Windows. There was a simple terminal, so to type in programs we used “ed”.

Ed was, needless to say, an utter pain to work with. God forbid that you would make a typo, because then what would you do?

The upshot of which was that it was always easier to use the UNIX machines at Strathclyde where possible. The UNIX machines had a proper range of software, including such useful tools as Mathematica. Actually, it might not have been Mathematica, it was one like that. Not Matlab. Would anyone care to jog my memory as to what the program might have been called?

The UNIX machines had nice big screens. The file servers did go down a few times. One time, our lecturer on Time Series and Forecasting – who was actually a bit of a shirty geezer who was probably unsuitable for lecturing – told us to overwrite our .bashrc file so that we could get a relevant program working.

Rather naively, many did this, only to discover that many other settings that we needed were obviously zapped in the process. Clearly, many of us did not have much of a concept as to what was going on, and there was much tutting at the mess he made.

At the time, I didn’t even understand the concept of directory structures, and I thought they were too complicated. You have to remember that this was the early 90’s, so there was little exposure to how computers really worked. I had a mathematical background, not a computing one.

I do not really remember what the UNIX DE (Desktop Environment). Was it CDE, I’m not sure. According to Wikipedia, CDE was released in June 1993, which would have been towards the end of my course. It must have been fairly similar, though.

During one class, some wag sent a picture of a scantily-clad young lady to my workstation, much to my embarassment. It was simply a matter of setting DISPLAY to a different IP address, and opening up a display viewer. Ah, the days of innocence, when nobody worried about security issues. It’s also interesting to note that even in the early 90’s, there were pics of scantily clad young ladies floating about. I guess it must have been like a caveman from a technologically primitive tribe hearing about paint for the first time, and upon being invited to view his first cave gallery, discovering that they were mostly pictures of scantily clad beauties.

After finishing my Masters, I then went on to study for a PhD in mathematics at GCU. We were given individual PCs to work on. I had a Mathematica (?) licence. I also had Fortran. I used both extensively. I think the PCs were 386’s, maybe 486’s, so presumably we were on 32-bit machines, rather than 16-bit.

I seem to recall that Phar Lap was involved, which was a DOS extender that allowed my Fortran compiler to work. Windows 3.1 was the main OS. The other lads used LaTeX to prepare their reports. I used it for awhile, but my professor convinced me to use Word.

Word was frustrating, because I obtained different output depending on where I printed my report. It screwed up my nice layout. It took me awhile to figure out what was going on. Word is device-dependent, so output could vary according to the device driver. LaTeX is device-independent, so output could be depended upon to be consistent. I love the look of LaTeX documents, the typesetting almost look like works of art to me.

The group that I was working in had a Dec Alpha, which cost £20k. A lot of money! I had free access to it, but it was somewhat inconvenient to use, so I just used to stick with my PC.

In retrospect, the Dec Alpha was ridiculously overpriced. We were each issued with out own PCs. The Dec cost far more than the cost of the PCs combined. Is it any wonder that the days of the workstation were numbered?

Sometime into my PhD, the head of department ordered half a dozen SGI machines for use by the faculty. The interface was quite spiffy, and they had webcams. How high-tech was that! By today’s standards, the webcams were of poor quality.

As an aside, does anyone remember the film Lost in Space, released 1999? It featured an in-film advert by SGI, right about the time it was headed for financial disaster.

In the mid 90’s I switched from an Amiga to a PC at home. The Amiga did have a Fortran compiler, believe it or not. Not bundled, of course, it was freeware. The program was called BCD. I don’t think it was bug-free, though. I did most of my programming using Blitz Basic. My simulations did, of course, finish faster on the university PC compared to my Amiga.

My PC came with Windows 95. The film Forrest Gump came bundled with it on a separate CD. It’s quite impressive how much was achieved with such lowly-specced machines.

Linux was beginning its ascendancy, and I installed Slackware off a CD that came with a book. The book seemed mostly cobbled-together, I thought. Making things work was a tricky affair, as  you needed to know a fair bit about your hardware to get the drivers for X-Windows working.

Throughout the middle of the 90’s, I did not have much exposure to UNIX machines, despite the impression you might have. I tinkered with it a bit, but most of my work was really with PCs. I did visit one lecturer at Strathclyde who was very enthusiastic with his Linux setup, and was keen to evangelise it to me. He showed me how he typed his LaTeX document in emacs. Emacs was able to compile the documents via external programs. It was magical how it was all combined. He was thrilled with it, and I was very impressed.

In the late 90’s I went to work for Logica. It was there that I became properly reacquainted with UNIX. I worked in Space and Defence. So, of course, we used real machines, none of that foo-foo nonsense that the business department used.

We used Sun Ultras. Again, I can’t remember what the Desktop Environment was. I did like it, though. I was writing C code. In Emacs, naturally. It was likely that I was using the CDE. This would have been about the time that GNOME was in its ascendancy, and there were signs that Sun were going to adopt it as their main desktop environment.

The Suns I used almost certainly did not run GNOME, though.

I remember being very impressed with the Sun package manager. Put in the relevant CD, and an installed package was just moments away.

I also liked the way you could boot Sun work stations. It had a little EPROM in it, so you could save setting that would take effect when you next rebooted.

If we could only boot computers the way we boot Suns! Multi-booting operating systems on today’s PCs seems more hard work than is strictly necessary.

We paid Sun about £20k pa for tech support, running to 5 machines. My project used tech support a lot. One tech that I ‘phoned expressed astonishment at the number of calls we raised.

We had a few site visits to replace hardware that was going down the pan. Some of it was getting a bit old, and technologically obsolete. It didn’t help, either, that much of the equipment was housed in a safe for mandatory security reasons. It got a bit hot in there.

Our project had to support some old devices, Lord alone knows why. Some were far from elegant. There was an optical drive that could store around the same amount as a CD. Considering the sizes of CD drives these days, the hardware seems unnecessarily big. Maybe the hardware was a little more reliable, but that’s debatable.

When I left that particular project, I went on to work on a Java project. At the time, Dec Alpha was looking like it was going bankrupt. That was a big scare, because it meant that an array of VAX machines that controlled satellites would be unsupported.

That’s not the kind of thing you want to hear about.

That particular project was to convert Fortran written with Dec-specific extensions into vanilla Fortran. We did this using a converter that we wrote in Java. We wrote the  software on PCs. The translation went on overnight.

This must have been the time that Java was only starting to come out. Unbeknown to us, we used some Java functions that were not available in the OS of our client. So our client had to upgrade their OS just to run our software. They ran into a few snags, but nothing serious.

OK, so that’s some back-story, what do I think of CDE now?

I think it’s … um … interesting. It looks a little clunky. Window decorations look too “fat”. So a lot of real-estate is being wasted. The terminal fonts are similarly clunky, but there is an option to reduce their size. It then looks neat.

In my opinion, the task panel (or whatever they call it) is too chunky, too. Some modern-day DE’s make that mistake, too.

I do not like the way that you can overlay windows on top of it.

On the other hand, it does have a certain whimsical charm to it. I think you would get used to it, and, dare I say it, even prefer it.

I think it also demonstrates that, even in the 90’s, desktop environments were mostly “there”; and that we have since been spending our time reinventing wheels and piling on the kilobytes.

Will it replace my LXDE? Realistically, no. The task panel in LXDE is better and works the way I want it to.

There’s possibly isn’t much that isn’t fixable, though. I applaud the efforts of the team that is bringing CDE into open source. It needs to mature a bit to make installation more seamless.

It’s also worth remembering that CDE is very lightweight, and I can see it being used by a few distros. I am given to understand that it does not work with Arch yet. I am sure that crowd will be particularly keen. There really ought to be a Slackware package for it, too. Come on Slackers, this is exactly the kind of retro stuck-in-the-90’s stuff that you should revel in.

In some ways, CDE reminds me how UNIX and their clones should be. None of that systemd and D-Bus baloney. GNOME seems to increase its resource requirements whilst simultaneously reduce its functionality.

Now that I put it way, it seems obvious where all the blame lays: Red Hat, possibly with special mention to Poettering.

OK. Now for some technical stuff. I present some notes that I made to compile CDE on Lubuntu 16.10. I thoroughly expect them to work on Ubuntu 16.10, too. Here it is:

 sudo apt-get -y install git build-essential g++ lib{xt,xmu,xft,xinerama,xpm,motif,ssl,xaw7,x11,xss,tirpc,jpeg,freetype6}-dev tcl-dev ksh m4 ncompress xfonts-{100,75}dpi{,-transcoded} rpcbind bison xbitmaps

Download sources from .
 I used cde-src-2.2.4.tar.gz

unpack, cd, etc.

make World
 sudo make install # doesn't seem to do much

export PATH=$PATH:/usr/dt/bin
 export LANG=C
 cd /usr/dt/bin


Unfortunately, my X-server crashed whilst I was taking notes, so they are unfortunately incomplete.

Be sure to check out this wiki page for more information and guidance.

Kudos to the CDE guys! I really do hope the project is a huge success.


About mcturra2000

Computer programmer living in Scotland.
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