Starting the Ayatana Indicators Transition in Debian

This is to make people aware and inform about an ongoing effort to replace Indicators in Debian (most people know the concept from Ubuntu) by a more generically developed and actively maintained fork: Ayatana Indicators.


In Debian, we will soon start sending out patches to SNI supporting applications via Debian's BTS (and upstream trackers, too, probably), that make the shift from Ubuntu AppIndicator (badly maintained in Debian) to Ayatana AppIndicator.

Status of the work being done is documented here:

Why Ayatana Indicators

The fork is currently pushed forward by the Debian and Ubuntu MATE packaging team.

The Indicators concept has originally been documented by Canonical, find your entry point in the readings here [1,2].

Some great work and achievement was done around Ubuntu Indicators by Canonical Ltd. and the Indicators concept has always been a special identifying feature of Ubuntu. Now with the switch to GNOMEv3, the future of Indicators in Ubuntu is uncertain. This is where Ayatana Indicators come in...

The main problem with Ubuntu Indicators today (and ever since) is (has been): they only work properly on Ubuntu, mostly because of one Ubuntu-specific patch against GTK-3 [3].

In Ayatana Indicators (speaking with my upstream hat on now), we are currently working on a re-implementation of the rendering part of the indicators (using GTK's popovers rather then menushells), so that it works on vanilla GTK-3. Help from GTK-3 developers is highly welcome, in case you feel like chiming in.

Furthermore, the various indicator icons in Ubuntu (-session, -power, -sound, etc. - see below for more info) have been targetted more and more for sole usage with the Unity 7 and 8 desktop environments. They can be used with other desktop environments, but are likely to behave quite agnostic (and sometimes stupid) there.

In Ayatana Indicators, we are working on generalizing the functionality of those indicator icon applications and make them more gnostic on other desktop environments.

Ayatana Indicators as an upstream project will be very open to contributions from other desktop environment developers that want to utilize the indicator icons with their desktop shell, but need adaptations for their environment. Furthermore, we want to encourage Unity 7 and Unity 8 developers to consider switching over (and getting one step further with the goal of shipping Unity on non-Ubuntu systems). With the Unity 8 maintainers (the people from UBports / Ubuntu Touch) first discussion exchanges have taken place.

The different Components of Ayatana Indicators

The 'indicator-renderer' Applets

Theses are panel plugins mostly, that render the system tray icons and menus (and widgets) defined by indicator aware applications. They normally come with your desktop environment (if it supports indicators).

Letting the desktop environment render the system tray itself assures that the indicator icons (i.e. the desktop system tray) looks just like the rest of the desktop shell. With the classical (xembed based) system tray (or notification) areas, all applications render their icon and menus themselves, which can cause theming problems and a11y issues and more.

Examples of indicator renderers are: mate-indicator-applet, budgie-indicator-applet, xfce4-indicator-pluign, etc.

Shared Library: Rendering and Loading of Indicators

The Ayatana Indicators project currently only provides a rendering shared lib for GTK-2 and GTK-3 based applications. We still need to connect better with the Qt-world.

The rendering library (used by the above renderers) is libayatana-indicator.

This library supports:

  • loading and rendering of old style indicators
  • loading and rendering of NG indicators

The libayatana-indicator library also utilizes a variety of versatile GTK-3 widget defined in another shared library: aytana-ido.

Ayatana Indicator Applets

The Ayatana Indicators project continues and generalizes various indicator icon applications that are not applications by themselves really, but more like system / desktop control elements:

  • ayatana-indicator-session (logout, lock screen, user guides, etc.)
  • ayatana-indicator-power (power management)
  • ayatana-indicator-sound (sound and multimedia control)
  • ayatana-indicator-datetime (clock, calendar, evolution-data-server integration)
  • ayatana-indicator-notifications (libnotify collector of system messages)
  • ayatana-indicator-printers (interact with CUPS print jobs and queues)

These indicators are currently under heavy re-development. The current effort in Ayatana Indicators is to make them far more generic and usable on all desktop environments that want to support them. E.g. we recently added XFCE awareness to the -session and the -power indicator icons.

One special indicator icon is the Ayatana Indicator Application indicator. It provides SNI support to third-party applications (see below). For the desktop applet, it appears just like any of the other above named indicators, but it opens the door to the world of SNI supporting applications.

One available and easy-to-install test case in Debian buster for indicator icons provided by the Ayatana Indicators project is the arctica-greeter package. The icons displayed in the greeter are Ayatana Indicators.

Ayatana AppIndicator API

The Ayatana AppIndicator API is just one way of talking to an SNI DBus service. The implementation is done in the shared lib 'libayatana-appindicator'. This library provides an easy to implement API that allows GTK-2/3 applications to create an indicator icon in a panel with an indicator renderer added.

In the application, the developer creates a generic menu structure and defines one or more icons for the system tray (more than one icon: only one icon is shown (plus some text, if needed), but that icon may changed based on the applet's status). This generic menu is sent to a DBus interface (org.kde.StatusNotifier). Sometimes, people say, that such applications have SNI support (StatusNotifier Interface support).

The Ayatana Indicators project offers Ayatana AppIndicator to GTK-3 developers (and GTK-2, but well...). Canonical implemented bindings for Python2, Perl, GIR, Mono/CLI and we continue to support these as long as it makes sense.

The nice part of Ayatana AppIndicator shared library is: if a desktop shell does not offer the SNI service, then it tries to fall back to the xembed-way of adding system tray icons to your panel / status bar.

In Debian, we will start sending out patches too SNI supporting applications soon, that make the shift from Ubuntu AppIndicator (badly maintained in Debian) to Ayatana AppIndicator. The cool part of this is, you can convert your GTK-3 application from Ubuntu AppIndicator to Ayatana AppIndicator and use it on top of any(!) SNI implementation, be it an applet based on Ubuntu Indicators, based on Ayatana Indicators or some other implementation, like the vala-sntray-applet or SNI support in KDE.

Further Readings

Some more URLs for deeper reading...

You can also find more info on my blog: