Scratching the historical itch with uwm

I can safely be accused of having retro tastes, whether it’s antique cameras, typewriters or hi-fi cabinets. (I recently acquired my parents’ Silvertone Hi-Fi, which seems to be in good working order except for the strong burning smell it emitted when Oldies 1310 started playing an Anne Murray song. Draw your own conclusions.)

This tendency towards the antiquated also extends to my computing habits. While I normally vacillate between fvwm and Xfce, I also often tinker with twm when I want to relive 1989. Recently, though, I stepped even further back and installed uwm (the Ultrix Window Manager) on my laptop. Originally released in 1985 for Digital’s Ultrix brand of Unix systems, it is still available today for most UNIX and Unix-like systems. (I’ve been shacking up with NetBSD lately, and thus was able to download uwm as a binary package.)

If you’re used to KDE, Gnome or other full-featured desktop environments, then uwm will shock you with its minimalism. Even users of most lightweight window managers will find it more bare-bones than their usual fare. If you’re coming from the world of Plan 9 from Bell Labs, or use 9wm or its variants, however, then uwm isn’t that far removed from what you’re already used to. (There are no title bars or controls. All window operations, such as moving or resizing, are handled with the “WindowOps” menu, which is accessed via the middle button on a 3-button mouse, or by clicking both buttons on a two-button mouse. I have the latter, so I modified the .uwmrc file to invoke the menu by right-clicking.)

I am still figuring out the nuances of this wm, as there seems to be at least some limited potential for customization. It would at least be nice to change and/or enlarge the font of the WindowOps menu, as the default is too small for my own liking. Can it be modified to the same extent as twm, its successor? My instincts are telling me no, though for the sake of objectivity I will explore it further before judging.

I don’t know if I’d recommend uwm as a production environment, but it’s at least worth taking for a spin if only for the sake of scratching an historical itch. If twm is comparable to cruising around in an old muscle car, then uwm is more like firing up Grandpa’s old moped — good for simple errands but you probably don’t want it for long trips.

If nothing else, at least there’s no burning smell when you turn it on.

(This entry has also been posted on my general interest blog:

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