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Lesstif: One User's Impression

By Larry Ayers

One of the main differences between Linux and the commercial Unix flavors is that the commercial unices commonly come with one version or other of the proprietary Motif libraries. Motif is basically a "widget-set", a set of libraries and header-files which give X-windows applications a characteristic look, including such features as dialog-boxes, menus, file- and font-selectors, drag-and-drop support, etc.

There are several free widget-sets which offer roughly the same functionality, such as GTK, so Motif isn't a necessity for a Linux system except for one factor. Many of the popular free-software projects come from institutions such as universities or government agencies, with a few originating in a commercial or corporate setting. These institutions often use a commercial Unix and programmers tend therefore to use the Motif development tools.

A year or so ago I bought a copy of SWIM Motif from the LSL web-site. There were several software packages I wanted to compile which required the Motif libraries and header files, such as XEphem, NEdit, DDD and Vim. The price of a commercial Motif package had been close to two hundred dollars, but the new SWIM version was selling at that time for about sixty, so it seemed like a good deal. It's a quality product and worked well for me until I decided to upgrade my Debian system to Debian 2.0, which is based on libc6 (as are Redhat 5.0 and 5.1). I used the handy autoup.sh script, which upgrades the core packages of the distribution in the proper order. Everything was hunky-dory until I realized that my proprietary Motif libs were based on libc5 and won't function in a libc6 environment. The LSL company offers a thirty-dollar upgrade for customers in my situation, but I felt that I'd spent enough on what isn't really a necessary software package, and who's to say whether some future changes in Linux might put me in the same situation again? Situations like these really make me appreciate source-code availability!

I'd been hearing favorable reports on the newer versions of Lesstif, a free and open-source Motif 1.2 clone created by a team of developers called the Hungry Programmers. The release of the Netscape source earlier this year had attracted new Lesstif users, as Netscape needs Motif to build. More users means more bug-reports and probably some additional programming help; I can't help but think that the new Netscape situation was a shot in the arm for Lesstif. The Lesstif releases seem to be more frequent now, for whatever reasons.

I really didn't know what to expect from Lesstif. I remembered reading usenet postings concerning Lesstif's failures to work with this or that application and numerous comments on display flaws and other bugs. These comments were made over a year ago, which is approximately a decade in "computer time", so I was hoping for at least a marginally useful product.

The first release I tried was 0.83. To my surprise, it compiled and installed as easily as any other quality GPL package. Feeling rather foolish that I'd spent hard-earned cash on a commercial Motif implementation, I proceeded to re-compile (over the course of a few weeks) every application which I had previously linked with SWIM Motif. So far every one I've tried has worked well with Lesstif; some packages needed the paths to the Lesstif libraries and header-files specified in the Makefile, but this was the only tinkering I've had to do. I was particularly pleased that NEdit now works with Lesstif, as this editor's dependence on Motif has until now hindered its widespread use by Linux users.

The few bugs I've seen in the Lesstif version I'm using now (0.85) are minor and have little effect on usability.

One reason Lesstif is important for the Linux community is that its existence and usability make it possible for the developers of distributions to package Motif-linked applications without the necessity of dealing with non-free software. The application developers can continue to use Motif, while Linux users can still compile and run the programs without the proprietary libraries.

Jon Christopher, a member of the Lesstif team, has written an essay about Lesstif's history and prospects which is well worth reading. It was originally contributed to the Slashdot web-site, and is available here. The Lesstif web-site has the latest releases and other news.

Last modified: Sun 28 Jun 1998

Copyright © 1998, Larry Ayers
Published in Issue 30 of Linux Gazette, July 1998