GNOME project considers adding window tiling by default

Bringing automatic window tiling to the mainstream could be big – but what is it and how do you use it?

The GNOME desktop is considering adding support for automatic window tiling. This could be a significant productivity boost for the most common Linux desktop environment – as well as further afield.

In a lengthy and interesting blog post entitled Rethinking window management, GNOME developer Tobias Bernard discusses the options for adding automatic window management to the GNOME desktop. It's an interesting post, and it raises some interesting ideas… although as is often the case with the GNOME project, what it doesn't mention is as interesting as what it does.

Tiling window managers are an area of active and ongoing research and development in the Linux world, and this is also spilling over into Windows, as well as macOS and iPadOS. What's interesting about this move is that the developers are considering enabling it by default, which would be a radical departure. Lots of operating systems have some level of this functionality, which we'll go into in a moment – it's worth knowing about, as it can be a big win for productivity. Only a few, relatively niche Linux environments have it always-on, though.

The core of the concept is that half a century ago, when the Xerox Alto introduced the world to overlapping windows, screens were usually quite small. You couldn't see more than one thing at a time, but overlapping windows let you manipulate multiple items at a time in a visual way. Today, screens tend to be big and high-resolution, which makes having lots of little overlapping windows inefficient – but managing them takes additional work that most of us are not inclined to take on. A tiling window manager replaces overlapping windows with ones that automatically arrange themselves side-by-side, as they did back in Windows 1.0.

Bernard's blog post does mention Forge, which is one of the top listings to appear if you search for window tiling on the GNOME extensions website – although he mentions it in order to criticise it. There are a number of other extensions that offer comparable functionality which go unnoted, such as Tiling assistant and PaperWM. The latter has an innovative approach, merging tiling with virtual desktops.

What he notably doesn't mention at all is, of course, System76's Pop!_OS, which these days is one of the more popular Ubuntu remixes for power users. Pop!_OS has window tiling built in, although it's turned off by default.

Regular readers might have worked out by now that the Reg Foss Desk is not a big fan of the GNOME environment, but Pop!_OS made us realise that this is not because it's too strange and different: it's because it's not different enough, and it doesn't really "lean in" to being something distinctly unlike and distinct from more conventional desktops such as Windows and macOS. GNOME takes away familiar features such as desktop icons, maximise and minimise controls, and anything much like a taskbar for easily and visually switching between windows and apps. Instead, it leans heavily on its overview screen which is a nifty feature but perhaps not enough on its own.

As we said when we looked at it last time: "The COSMIC desktop gives GNOME 42 a distinct boost: while vanilla GNOME can feel like it's really aimed at users who live in one maximized window most of the time, COSMIC's tiling windows felt like a power-user feature, and it's easy to use."

The two teams do have a bit of a history of what one might diplomatically call creative differences, and indeed, System 76 is working on its own new environment, dubbed COSMIC. Perhaps this is why the Pop Shell went unmentioned.

For us, the key point of the blog post is that it talks about the need for additional metadata about the contents of a window in order to decide where to put that window. As arguably the single most popular desktop environment across Linux distributions, the GNOME project is in a position to require such things from developers. If that became something that was a standard feature of Gtk applications, it could significantly improve the whole landscape of tiling environments.

Meantime, though, all is not lost even if you are not a GNOME user. Some of these features are available across most other environments as well. KDE 5.27 has more advanced tiling support, as we mentioned when it came out. Windows users might recognise a form of this as the window snapping feature, which first appeared under the name Aero Snap back in Windows 7. Ubuntu's Unity desktop acquired the feature in 2013, although it was already controversial and not everybody liked it.

Windows 10 has a slightly richer version of this, which has been significantly enhanced in Windows 11. Briefly, although you can snap windows to one edge of the screen as before, the OS will now assist you in fitting another application into the remaining space, as well as more complicated layouts involving three or four windows. This feature actually has a very long history, and an early version was available way back in Windows 95.

Mac users need not feel left out. Split view is built into recent macOS releases – try holding down the option key and hovering the mouse pointer over a window's green zoom button. All the way back to Snow Leopard or so, Spectacle brought keyboard controls and more for this, and from High Sierra onwards, there's Rectangle, among many others. ®

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