I like the GNOME Shell and I’ve liked it since it was in the “testing”-repo of ArchLinux. It’s a fast and aesthetic desktop environment. But it’s a long way from offering everything you’d like to have. Luckily, it can be extended.
The following advices, instructions or sources where compiled when GNOME Shell 3.6.2 was the latest version. While specific information here might be outdated, the general idea still holds value today.
Note that this is not a real step-by-step guide on how to create your first extension. There are many of those out there and I would just repeat them. Instead, this is more like an advice-collection on different aspects of creating extensions. So, be sure to check the links.
Getting into the development of GNOME Shell Extensions is a little hard. The documentation is mostly not available or outdated.
Here are some sources which helped me to get started (and through development):
- Basic stuff on extensions
- Basic stuff on development
- Step-by-step tutorial
- Some inofficial guidelines to get your extension on extensions.gnome.org
Be sure to defiantly check out the bold links in the list.
Getting stuff done #
Above all, if you’re serious about creating your extension: Learn to read the source, Luke.
When trying to get actual work done on your extension, try consulting the docs (if existing) or search the extension repos for extensions which do similar things to what you want to do, and look at their sources. Most of them are hosted on GitHub or Bitbucket, but you can also install them and find the sources under
When searching for a specific function, or more documentation on a particular function, you can also consult manuals for bindings in different languages (thought the parameters and return-values might not match exactly).
Making user interfaces #
To get a native look-and-feel with the Shell, extensions can use St (= Shell Toolkit) to create UIs for everything that integrates with the Shell itself, and Gtk for the extension-preferences.
Some Documentation is now available over at the Gnome Docs. It is however just a reference, which makes it hard to discover functionality. For some guidance, check out this (older) explanation of the St components. Reading a lot of source-code is still required. See the GNOME Shell Sources.
LookingGlass is not particularly helpful. It only shows one line of an exception (the description) and only if they occur at startup time (when your extension is first started).
Instead, for full StackTraces and runtime-exceptions, consult the session-logfile. It might be very long and bloated, so I use this handy script to read it:
# Grabs the last session-errors from the current X11 session. # This includes full Stack-Trace of gnome-shell-extension errors. # See https://live.gnome.org/GnomeShell/Extensions/StepByStepTutorial#lookingGlass tail -n100 ~/.cache/gdm/session.log | less
Should your extension crash the whole Shell, the
session.log-file will not contain information on it, because when the shell restarts, a new log-file is created. Go get information on what crashed the shell, check the
For debugging the prefs-part of your extension, you can launch the preferences by using the
gnome-shell-extension-prefs-tool from a terminal. Any exceptions will be output to the console. Additionally, you can also call the tool like
gnome-shell-extension-prefs [uuid] to directly show your extensions preferences.
Since there is currently no real way of debugging with breakpoints (there is, but it’s tricky), you can log to the console, using the
print()-function. You will see the output as mentioned above (either in the session-logfile or on the terminal when starting
The future #
Practically any high-level, garbage-collected language is much better than plain C, in terms of productivity, once you get used to the idiosyncrasies of the bindings to the Gnome libraries.
So, there is hope that the API documentation will improve very soon.
- Above all: Read the sources!
- Check out other extension’s sources and learn from them.
- Don’t get frustrated by the documentation. Read sources instead.
- You can ask specific questions on StackOverflow [gnome-shell-extensions]
Although it might be a little hard to get into it, the extension framework is quite powerful. Have fun!
Posted by Lukas Knuth