Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Linux Desktop bleeding edge

I’m having some trouble running Firefox 46, which was released in late April. I’ve had to roll back to 45.0.2 for now. No big deal, but my woes are pretty indicative of the complexities of the Linux desktop, so I thought it’d be interesting to write a little about it.

I run the “testing” distribution of Debian. Its stability lies somewhere between the “unstable” (things are largely untested) and “stable” (release quality) dists, so it’s pretty good, although the occasional hiccup is to be expected. My desktop environment is Xfce.

Firefox 46 contained a big change: the official binary releases are compiled using gtk3 instead of gtk2. I like using the official releases because the debian firefox package sometimes takes a little while to catch up to the latest version. For those who are unfamiliar, gtk is the graphics library for rendering the user interface, including all the widgets and their look-and-feel.

gtk3, in turn, has its own versions. In late March, gtk3 in Debian testing was updated to 3.20, which apparently contained some major changes from 3.19.

The problem is that Firefox 46 seems to work fine with pre-3.20 versions of gtk3; with 3.20, however, scrollbars, radio buttons and other widgets are rendered incorrectly or are even missing entirely. One of the bug reports can be found here.

You can apparently work around this issue if you use certain gtk3 themes. Not being a theme guru, I’m not sure exactly why; I was only able to determine this by experimenting with different themes and seeing how the Firefox rendering changed.

Okay, fine: I’d been using the default Xfce theme, which I quite like, but I’m willing to change it to make Firefox work. But I still encountered 2 problems with this workaround: 1) 3.20 is so new that many gtk3 themes included in Debian testing are broken because they haven’t been updated yet to be compatible. While I could get the scrollbars and radio buttons to work with some of these themes, there were often spacing issues around certain widgets, making UIs unusable or extremely annoying. 2) I need to find a theme that supports BOTH gtk2 and gtk3, since Xfce uses gtk2, otherwise I’ll end up with inconsistent look-and-feel across applications. Not all themes support both.

People complain about the state of the Linux desktop all the time, but the fact is, there are many moving parts that comprise a desktop environment. It’s a complex web of dependencies. Sometimes this means certain software packages have to be locked in to previous versions. Sometimes the newest version of a library can’t go into a distribution because it would break too many things that use it. Being able to run the latest and greatest versions of everything is a LOT harder than one might imagine.

In this case, I’m sure there will be a fix in Firefox and/or updates to the gtk3 themes soon enough.