Ride the D-Bus, Control your Linux desktop from the shell

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What is the D-Bus?

From the D-Bus documentation: “D-Bus is an inter-process communication mechanism—a medium for local communication between processes running on the same host. (Inter-host connects may be added in the future, but that is not what D-Bus is meant for). D-Bus is meant to be fast and lightweight, and is designed for use as a unified middleware layer underneath the main free desktop environments”

So for the non technically inclined (why are you reading this anyway) 😉 basically a simple way to think of D-Bus, is that it’s a way for processes on an operating system to communicate with each other. That’s probably a simple and non accurate enough wording, but it should help grasp the concept. Many utilities nowadays are implementing D-Bus connectivity. It is especially interesting (well for me anyway) to script some GUI elements like for example my KDE-4 desktop from the command line. This would help automate some tasks and is cool anyways. Let’s see how to begin talking on the D-Bus

In order to communicate with running applications on the D-Bus, we need a front end CLI application, or we could use a language binding (say python bindings). However, we will choose a CLI application. It is possible to use “dbus-launch”, or the “qdbus” command part of Qt4. I will be using qdbus since it demonstrates the point and is faster to use. So, let’s launch qdbus, and list the running communications buses.

# qdbus
… List continues

So basically, qdbus now contacts the running session D-Bus and lists available buses. The buses are named in a reverse DNS style names as you can see. Some buses do not have names, but rather numbers, as far as I can see those represent specific sessions of some applications. Now we need to pick an interesting bus to talk on. I will run the following command to list only freedesktop dbuses, as I believe those should work whether you’re running Gnome or KDE. So, it should help any reader follow along

#qdbus | grep freedesktop

so, let’s pick the ScreenSaver bus. In order to list the available objects on any specific bus, we call it like so:

#qdbus org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver

I mostly find only one “useful” object, in this case “/ScreenSaver”. Let’s contact that object, and list its avialable “methods”. The methods of an object for those who have not done any object oriented coding before, is basically the list of actions or “things” this object can “do”. So listing the methods:

# qdbus org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver /ScreenSaver
signal void org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver.ActiveChanged(bool)
method bool org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver.GetActive()
method uint org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver.GetActiveTime()
method uint org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver.GetSessionIdleTime()
method uint org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver.Inhibit(QString application_name, QString reason_for_inhibit)
method void org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver.Lock()
method bool org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver.SetActive(bool e)
method void org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver.SimulateUserActivity()
method uint org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver.Throttle(QString application_name, QString reason_for_inhibit)
method void org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver.UnInhibit(uint cookie)
method void org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver.UnThrottle(uint cookie)
method void org.kde.screensaver.configure()
method void org.kde.screensaver.saverLockReady()
method QDBusVariant org.freedesktop.DBus.Properties.Get(QString interface_name, QString property_name)
method void org.freedesktop.DBus.Properties.Set(QString interface_name, QString property_name, QDBusVariant value)
method QString org.freedesktop.DBus.Introspectable.Introspect()

Hmm, interesting stuff. Can you see the following method:
Obviously it gives you the session idle time, i.e. how long has the interactive user not touched his keyboard or mouse. This piece of information is interesting if you want your shell script to only do certain things when the user is not interactively using his machine. Without D-Bus, getting this kind of information would be almost impossible, or too tricky. Now how do we call this method you ask? easy! just append it to the command line:

#qdbus org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver /ScreenSaver org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver.GetSessionIdleTime

So, the output from this command is a “0”. Meaning the session idle time is zero! Everytime you execute this command, you get the same answer. Starting to guess why ? 🙂 Basically, as you hit “enter” to run this command, you reset the session idle time back to zero! So, what do we do to test the functionality, try this:

# sleep 5 ; qdbus org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver /ScreenSaver org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver.GetSessionIdleTime

So, that previous combo command sleeps for 5 seconds .. then executes the D-Bus query without touching any further keyboard keys, so this time we get an answer of “4” seconds. Don’t know where that extra second slipped though 🙂

Ok, as a second example let’s focus on the following method:
method bool org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver.SetActive(bool e)

This method sets the screen saver active, i.e. it launches the screen saver from your shell command or script. Let’s test it out:

# qdbus org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver /ScreenSaver org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver.SetActive
Error: org.freedesktop.DBus.Error.UnknownMethod
No such method ‘SetActive’ in interface ‘org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver’ at object path ‘/ScreenSaver’ (signature ”)

Oops, this time we got an error. Why? Basically the error is telling us that it cannot find that method we’re calling with that “signature”. A method signature usually means the arguments you pass to it and the return type. This simply means we’re not calling the method the way it’s meant to be called. The sharp shooters are going to instantly know this is because we missed the (bool e) at the end of the method. This means the method call is expecting a boolean (true/false) argument. So, let’s call the screensaver method correctly this time:

# qdbus org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver /ScreenSaver org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver.SetActive True

Cool! We’re now launching the screensaver from the command line. Let’s see what else we can do:

# qdbus org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver /ScreenSaver org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver.Lock

Yep, that locks the screen on demand, cool! I’m hungry for more. Let’s see. Let’s call that inhibit method. This will basically inhibit the screensaver from kicking in, even if your computer is idle. Why would that be useful ? Say you’re watching a You-tube longish video, and AFAIK, Flash doesn’t yet communicate that to the system, and thus the screensaver will kick in to interrupt the video playback. So, let’s do it:

# qdbus org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver /ScreenSaver org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver.Inhibit “$$” “Testing D-Bus Interface”

Let’s explain those arguments we passed, the first one should be the application name, in my case, the special shell variable $$ is the PID for the currently executing shell. The second string is the “reason for inhibit”! The method call returns a cookie, i.e. a magic number that identifies my request. This is useful when you want to turn off the inhibit, i.e. return the system to its normal state. You would need to pass back that magic cookie. This is used by the system to identify the different inhibit requests. So finally let’s uninhibit our screensaver using that cookie number

# qdbus org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver /ScreenSaver org.freedesktop.ScreenSaver.UnInhibit 5822

Cool! Are you starting to see the possibilities just yet? Hope you had fun on this D-Bus tour

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