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Cairo: A Windows Shell Alternative, Developer Interview

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Discuss more about Cairo, right here on Aqua-Soft!

One of the rarely modified yet most important aspects of customizing Windows is the desktop shell. The shell is what users interact with on their computer, and includes everything from how buttons look and window animations to where menus appear and how you browse through files on your hard drive. The default shell of Windows XP, for example, includes a taskbar and Start menu which are easily made to look different, but not so easily made to act differently. This is where the alternate shell, such as Litestep or Talisman, comes in. These alternatives to the defualt Windows environment offer entirely different ways of how you interact with your computer.

A new and promising shell alternative, entitled Cairo, has been under development now for quite some time. Cairo started as a small Samurize project, abandoned after the developer, Michael, realized the limitations of Samurize as a base for the shell. The project then moved from Samurize to DesktopX, then finally on to C#. More on the history of Cairo can be read on the project’s site.


The developers would like to emphasize that the UI is temporary and that while comments are welcome and appreciated, the functionality is what is most important to them right now.

I recently got together with one of the members of Cairo’s Development Team, Michael, or A-S member mciarlo, and got to ask him a few questions about Cairo and what it will mean for the deskmodding community. Here's the information I gained from our interview:

a2z: So, what was the inspiration behind Cairo, and what are your hopes for it as an alternative desktop shell?

mciarlo: Cairo is aimed at the customization community primarily, but we are hoping it catches on with all sorts of people just looking for a better alternative. It was originally slated for Samurize (way back when it was just a simple taskbar) but once we had the basic ideas down on paper and moved it away from Samurize and into C, we decided to go for it. Our main objectives are to increase productivity, ease-of-use, and functionality and we hope we get people talking. We want people to see their computer as more than a piece of hardware they can type Word documents on or share pictures with friends. With Cairo, we want to bring technology standards to a new level and get people seeing their computer in a whole new way, and talk about how they never knew their computer could be so enjoyable.

a2z: Awesome. I'm sure Cairo will get there. So, who exactly is working towards this goal?

MC: Well, we recently did some re-organizing. Some of our team members had to leave for other responsibilities, and we are actively looking for talented, experienced developers to join our team. I know Aqua-Soft is full of individuals with great skill and I hope to strengthen our team with what some of them may have to offer.

a2z: Oh, so in other words, the help of those individuals out there with experience, especially those with *ahem*green badges*cough* would surely be appreciated. Speaking of development, I suppose the big question is how far along is development on Cairo thus far?

MC: Well, after so long in development, we are finally hoping to have an alpha available in the next month or two. I just got the news from our head developer, Joe [LaFountain], a week ago. I think it's important to remember that we are a small team trying to accomplish a monumental task--this is a big moment for us. We are hoping to have an alpha available to select testers and then open it up to a wider audience a little later to get our basic system tested on a varity of machines. It will fall understandably short of our goal at the time for release, but it will be solid proof that we are well on our way. We have always stood by Cairo, and we will continue to do so.


a2z: Meaning that Cairo will see continued development, up to and even after release. That's always good to hear. So, now to the good part. What are some features you'd like to highlight available in Cairo?

MC: I’d like to highlight that there are still some 'hidden' features that we have yet to disclose, and will most likely not be available in our alpha release. If I had to choose a few to mention specifically that have been disclosed, they would be the dynamic desktop, whcih allows users to navigate their files directly from their desktop and the new pages in our file explorer. Both really have a profound effect on how a user interacts with their system.

I also want to re-emphasize our determination to exceed expectations. We aren't just building Cairo for our wonderful community, but for ourselves as developers. We want to know that when we are using our desktop, others are getting the same sense of enjoyment.

a2z: Great! So how does customization work?

MC: Basically we want the community to choose how and what Cairo runs. With an easy to use management system, we will allow users to add or remove, as well as customize plugins (available on our website upon launch) to suit their needs. If you want Cairo to behave like OS X, we will provide the tools to allow that. If you want the classic Cairo experience, you can do that too.

a2z: Ahh, very nice. So, what kind of hardware would you recommend people use to get the fullest out of Cairo?

MC: We can't say at this time because there will be so much optimization involved once we get near the end. Our goal is as low as we can get. Realistically, don't expect it to run on 256MB of RAM or a Pentium 2 900MHz, but I think a good starting point would be that if you can run XP well, you will most likely be able to run Cairo well.

a2z: Cool stuff. That applies to most of this community anyway, I think. Speaking of Windows XP, I understand Cairo is meant to run first on Vista. Tell me more about the XP version of Cairo.

MC: As a small team we are forced to develop for Vista first. Only when Cairo is released for Vista will compatability for XP begin. This isn't to say it won't work with XP at the start, but there's no guarantee. Bug priority will go to Vista machines. As for a release date, any estimate I give now would be a stab in the dark, so that information is still up in the air. There are too many factors (stability, performance, feature inclusions) to begin estimating a release date. Besides, we want to release it when it's a quality piece of software. We will always have deadlines as a team, but if it isn't ready to go out, it won't. We follow Apple and Microsoft on this. Although some might argue against Microsoft on this one, haha.

a2z: Me included. On a final note, what's your favorite thing?

MC: lol what? Oh, uhm... my Xbox 360.

Click the banner below to visit the Cairo homepage and learn more. The homepage is also where you can follow development in the project blog, discuss the shell in the forums, and make donations towards this great-looking piece of software.


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Great interview. I'd like to hear more about any possible plans for using Cairo as a base to clone Leopard on Windows, though. They've got some Leopard features integrated, and I think it's just an accurate theme and some work away from being the ultimate emulation solution.

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We are hoping to provide users with the best shell for Windows. OS X has many useful features that we hope to expand upon. If there are enough requests for certain functionality in Cairo, we will do our best to provide our community with what they want.

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Indeed, this does look very promising; a much needed boost to the customization scene. I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for this, and I'd be happy to test the XP version when you get one working ;)

Good job on this a2z.

Just a quick question, will this do desktop effects? And how will making skins for Cairo work?

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Indeed, this does look very promising; a much needed boost to the customization scene. I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for this, and I'd be happy to test the XP version when you get one working ;)

Good job on this a2z.

Just a quick question, will this do desktop effects? And how will making skins for Cairo work?

We are hoping *fingers crossed* for some form of skinning available in Cairo. If memory serves me right, there may have been mention of css/html...

I will update on this when I get more information.

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i very good reason to use vista XD

sadly i have to use windows xp because microsoft visual studio 2005 is integrated to the windows xp installation cd (yea acer installation is just copy and paste to partition1 another reason why i cannot dual boot xp and vista)

man i want to use vista so BAD... after seeing this.

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Please, oh please do not make this emulate Leopard. So far this really looks amazing, and you have the chance to be revolutionary rather than 'just another leopard clone,' albeit a potentially amazing one.

You are creating something fresh and new, which eventually people may try and emulate on OSX and Linux.

This project just has so much promise so do your own thing, and don't give into all the apple fanboy-ism, nobody needs another OSX clone. I do really like the idea of taking the best from both systems. It's projects like these that are Windows' strengths.

'We are hoping to provide users with the best shell for Windows' - keep up the fantastic work.

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This looks really promising. I really love some of the features of Leopard, such as CoverFlow, sidebar, etc, and I always miss them when I switch to Windows on my x86 box (yes, I run OSx86, sue me :P ).

Having a shell which is familiar to me on XP would be a godsend, especially if it runs smoothly and quickly. So no matter the design, as long as it runs and looks better than Explorer.exe, it's for me.

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If you want any help on getting Leopard functionality, etc. I am using an iMac running Leopard. If you have any questions about how any features work, or want to see videos, etc. Please ask. I'm more than happy to help out. (For example, you may not know that you can use exposé and spaces at the same time. And of course, if you have a full screen app/game, etc. you can of course use spaces to return to your desktop.)

Of you want testers, I'm in. I'm using an Aluminium iMac - The second model (2.4 GHz, 320GB, 20") with 3GB of RAM. Running Windows Vista Business via Boot Camp and VMware Fusion.

Best of luck for this project. It looks very promising.

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