Virtual Desktops: What Good are They?

I’ve been renewing my interest in virtual desktops – the ability to have multiple “desktops”, switching as you desire from one to the other. For Windows there is a very good implementation (freeware – not open source) called Dexpot. For the Macintosh, there is the program VirtueDesktops. For Linux, there’s the hugely popular Compiz – though I’m no fan of it (it’s purpose is to be pretty and to consume processing time – in my opinion). Default installations of GNOME and KDE both support generic virtual desktops – but Compiz makes them pretty.

With multiple desktops, the theory goes, you can use one desktop for a particular purpose, and another for some different purpose – for example, email on one and the Web on the other. It’s like having multiple monitors without being able to see them.

Note that this capability has existed in UNIX workstations since the 1980s – despite all the excitement over Apple MacOS X Leopard and it’s Spaces capability.

Note, too, that Dexpot handles a workspace with multiple monitors fairly well (no experience on whether Compiz or VirtueDesktops work well – my guess is they probably do).

So with multiple desktops, you can hide your email when you are busy coding (or administering, installing, or debugging…). This can save you from “hovering” over your mailbox instead of getting things done.

Virtual desktops can also provide the capability to separate two different environments – for example, working on a production system and working on a test environment. As administrators, you dare not mix up the test environment with the production environment when you go to shut the system down. Sure, you can color the terminal window – but what if you give your desktop an entirely different backdrop? And you wouldn’t even see the production environment unless you switched to it.

I’m going to try again – I’ve used VirtueDesktop in the past, but it had some annoying bugs – and we’ll see if it can improve productivity. I’ve also put Dexpot on my Windows desktop; we’ll see.