If there are two overlapping windows on the screen, people would like to be able to pick up an object from the lower window and drag it to the upper without bringing the lower window to the front, because if that happens the lower window will obscure the upper, and you won’t have anywhere to drag to. In this instance, we would like the same behaviour as Microsoft Windows: if the click starts a drag, raise the lower window on button release; if it doesn’t, raise the window on button press as normal.
However, Metacity (along with most other window managers) doesn’t currently do this, for want of a way to know whether the click starts a drag. This is really something that only the application owning that window can tell us. (It is possible for the user to tell us what they think, by holding down AltGr at the start of the drag. That may not be an official feature. It’s not really ideal either way.)
This whole question is something we’ve been batting around for six years now and it probably ought to be fixed one way or another. Over that time, there are also a few other reasons people have asked to be able to pick stuff up from lower windows, such as the ability to copy text from the lower window and paste it into the upper, or scrolling the lower window’s scrollbars: GNOME bug 76672 deals with this more general case, which we shan’t discuss further here now. Let’s concentrate on the most common problem, represented by GNOME bug 80984: not raising the source window when a drag and drop begins. What isn’t a solution to our problem?
What isn’t a solution
- Always raising the lower window only on release, not on click (suggested by many people). This would solve the problem at the cost of weirding everyone out, not just breaking the expectations of existing Metacity users and users from other window managers in the world of free software, but also the expectations of Mac and Windows people.
- Only raising a window when you click on the frame and not the insides, which was raised in GNOME bug 86108. This is a bad idea for similar reasons to the last.
- Having a magic kind of window that Metacity promises never to raise; then the client will decide whether to raise itself or not based on whether the click was the start of a drag operation. This is how Sawfish does or did it. It’s a bad idea because it rather defeats the purpose of having a window manager if clients are going to manage their own windows, and besides applications can’t raise their own windows in Metacity anyway.
What is a solution
What needs to happen is this:
- We figure out a way for other clients to tell the window manager that a click in their window was the start of some kind of drag-and-drop operation.
- At this point, the fact that Metacity doesn’t understand this message suddenly becomes a bug in Metacity. So we fix the window manager to understand this.
- At this point, the fact that none of the applications out there understand how to tell Metacity about this becomes a bug in those applications, but we can’t do anything much about it without fixing the toolkits like GTK. So we do that.
- Now we can actually fix all the applications separately. The bug for fixing Nautilus at this point is GNOME bug 132339.
Clearly we can’t get 2, 3, and 4 sorted until we have 1 down, so let’s just talk about that for the moment. Back in 2004, Lubos Lunak (the maintainer of KDE’s window manager) proposed the first plan to do this, called _NET_WM_TAKE_ACTIVITY (a misleading name, since it’s about taking focus and not activity). When a window other than the topmost one was clicked, the window manager would send it _NET_WM_TAKE_ACTIVITY, which it would remember; after that, nothing would happen until the button was released. If the click had actually begun a drag-and-drop operation, that was all well and good, but if it hadn’t, the client should send it on to the root window and the window manager would raise the window after all. In GNOME bug 152952, Elijah Newren wrote a patch for Metacity implementing this plan.
Lubos’s original plan had a few infelicities, some of which were discussed in this meeting. It means that the window is raised when you release the mouse button, which is bad for reasons we discussed above. It also means that a lot of policy is decided ahead of time: for example, some people would like their window manager to raise the lower window while they were copying text from it, and then drop it back down when they were done, but not do the same thing for drag-and-drop. There was working code for KDE and GNOME, but many people objected about all the problems mentioned above including the GTK hackers. In the end it didn’t make it into the EWMH standard, although some parts of the KDE libraries appear still to accept it to some extent.
Elijah then proposed to fix the problem with a new message type called _NET_WM_MOUSE_ACTION. With this plan, a client would send _NET_WM_MOUSE_ACTION through to the root window as soon as any button was pressed or released on it, telling the window manager what kind of action the click meant: it could be “nothing special” or “drag-and-drop”, but also “text selection” or “scrollbar drag” or “generic thing that I don’t want to explain right now but involves not raising me”. Lubos agreed that this was a better plan, but it died even earlier in committee, and as far as I know was never implemented anywhere.
It seems to me that the best thing to do, if we can, is to go with a partial fix using _NET_WM_MOUSE_ACTION which allows us to heal this obvious problem. Then we can carry on later and fix specific problems. Elijah has said that _NET_WM_MOUSE_ACTION needed a great deal of work to implement on the GTK side; the closest thing we have so far to working code is a patch he then posted. This does still need working on, preferably by someone who understands the internals of GDK (could this be you, gentle reader?).
A similar but not identical problem is the issue of raising windows when they are a drag target; this is covered in GNOME bug 112308.
Next in the overview series: why getting stacking exactly right is hard and what we’re going to do about it.
Photo by pbo31, cc-by-nc-nd.