Kenton Lee

X Application Software Engineering: "Indirect" Motif Widget Resources

byKenton Lee

Published in The X Journal March, 1995.
Copyright © 1994 Kenton Lee. All rights reserved.

Key words: X Window System, X11, Motif widget, X Toolkit widget resources, programming.


Many Motif features are controlled by "indirect" widget resources, i.e., a resource of one widget that controls the behavior of another widget. These resources are well documented, though perhaps not where you might normally look. In this issue's column, I will discuss places in the Motif documentation to look for resources such as these. I will also give examples of some of the most confusing indirect resources.


    1. Superclass Resources
    2. Parent Class Resources
    3. Combination and Convenience Widgets
    1. XmRowColumn Parent Widget
    2. XmBulletinBoard Parent Widget
    3. Shell Parent Widget Resources
    4. XmManager Superclass Resources
    5. XmLabel Superclass Resources
    6. XmForm Constraint Widget Resources
    7. XmPanedWindow Constraint Widget Resources
    8. XmScrolledWindow Combination Widget Resources
    9. XmMessageBox Combination Widget Resources


As a professional X consultant, I frequently help application developers with Motif programming problems. Many of these problems seem to occur because the programmer did not realize that Motif had a certain feature. Most of these features deal with look and feel configuration options that can be set via Motif widget resources.

Sometimes the resources are "indirect", that is, a resource of one widget controls the behavior of another widget. These resources are well documented, though perhaps not where you might normally look. In this issue's column, I will discuss places in the Motif documentation to look for resources such as these. I will also give examples of some of the most confusing indirect resources.


As you should already know, the primary programming interface to Motif widgets is the setting of widget resources. Most static Motif-based user interface builder tools provide visual tools for setting resources. Dynamic tools such as editres[1] also focus on widget resources.


Whenever you have a problem with a widget's configuration, the first place you should look for help is, of course, the documentation for the particular widget on which you are working. I prefer the official Motif reference manual pages, which are available in both book[2] and on-line UNIX man page[3] versions. Motif tutorial books usually present incomplete lists of resources, though they usually provide useful example code or screen dumps to explain techniques.

Many times the configuration of a particular widget is controlled by resources other than those directly defined in that widget's documentation. In the next three sections, I'll describe three other places you should look for resources that control a widget:

  1. superclasses
  2. parent widget
  3. combination widgets and convenience creation functions

Superclass Resources

In some cases, an important resource may be inherited from one of the superclasses of the widget in question. (In this paper, I will use the term "superclasses" to mean the immediate superclass as well as all recursive superclasses.) To help you find these, the Motif reference manual lists the widget's chain of superclasses, and also lists the resources and default resource values for the superclasses.

Many superclass resources are popular and widely used. For example, the XmLabel widget is the superclass of XmPushButton and XmToggleButton widgets, so all of the XmLabel's alignment and spacing resources also apply to the XmPushButton and XmToggleButton.

Other superclasses are not as obvious. For example, the XmBulletinBoard is the superclass for the XmForm. All of the XmBulletinBoard's default button, popup menu, and dialog handling resources also apply to the XmForm.

Parent Class Resources

Another place to look for resources that affect a widget is the documentation for the parent widget. The parent widget is the composite (manager) widget that controls the layout, size, and position of its child widgets. Parent widget resources can affect their children in three main ways:
  1. layout policy resources
  2. override resources
  3. constraint resources
While all widgets have size and position resources, these are really only hints to the parent widget. A composite widget is free to ignore them and instead use its own layout policy. In fact, most Motif composite widgets ignore at least some of their childrens' size and position hints. If your child widget is not laid out as you expected, look at the parent widgets layout policy and related resources. You may also need to check each ancestor in the widget instance hierarchy.

You should also check for override resources in the parent widget. Some composite widgets contain resources that override resources set in their children. The parent can override the child even when the parent resources are set via resource files and the child resources are set programatically.

Finally, you should check for constraint resources. These are resources implemented by the parent widget but that the programmer specifies on the child widget. The most common examples of constraint resources are XmForm attachment resources, which you must set on the children of the XmForm. Several other Motif composite classes also implement constraint resources.

The Motif reference manual documents all composite widget class resources, including constraint resources. The constraint resources are defined immediately following the composite widgets' normal resources.

Combination and Convenience Widgets

Motif defines several "combination" widgets, where one application call to XtCreateWidget() actually creates several widgets. Examples of combination widgets are the XmScrolledWindow (in automatic mode, it automatically creates XmScrollBar and XmDrawingArea widgets) and XmMessageBox (automatically creates XmLabel and XmPushButton gadgets). Most combination widgets provide resources that allow the programmer to retrieve the subwidgets, allowing you to set resource values on them. You should study the combination widget's documentation to determine the subwidgets' classes, then study the classes' documentation to determine which resources are available for them. Note, however, that some combination widgets forbid the setting of certain resources on their subwidgets. These restrictions are specified in the combination widget's documentation.

Related to combination widgets are convenience functions that create several widgets, for example, XmCreatePopupMenu() (creates XmRowColumn and XmMenuShell widgets) or XmCreateScrolledText() (creates XmScrolledWindow and XmText widgets). The documentation for the convenience function should specify which widgets are created and how you can retrieve the identifiers for the separate widgets. You can use this information to set resources on all the created widgets.


In the previous sections, we discussed where a Motif programmer could look for documentation on all of the resources that control a particular widget.

In the following sections, we will look at some examples of these indirect resources. I can't cover all of them in this column, so I'll focus on those that are very useful, but are not very obvious and may not be well covered in many of the Motif tutorial books.

Hopefully, you'll learn from these examples and also learn where to look for other interesting cases.

XmRowColumn Parent Widget

Possibly the most confusing of Motif's indirect resources come from the XmRowColumn parent widget. XmRowColumn is the workhorse of Motif widgets, being used in menu bars, menu panes, and radio buttons. XmRowColumn implements a number of resources especially for these specialty situations, but these resources can be confusing for application programmers using XmRowColumn in their applications. Some important menu-oriented resources are:

XmRowColumn also implements resources that control the ability of child widgets to dynamically change their sizes. If your widgets do not seem to grow or shrink when you expect, check these XmRowColumn resources:

In addition, most other XmRowColumn resources control its layout behavior, including packing style, borders, spacing, columns, and orientation.

XmBulletinBoard Parent Widget

Another confusing widget is the XmBulletinBoard. While application programmers rarely use XmBulletinBoard directly, it is the superclass of the popular XmForm. XmBulletinBoard is also the superclass of XmMessageBox, XmSelectionBox, and XmFileSelectionBox. All of XmBulletinBoard's its resources are inherited by these subclasses.

Motif uses XmBulletinBoard as the manager widget for most of its predefined dialog combination widgets. Many of XmBulletinBoard's more confusing features are designed for dialogs. For example, these resources change the behavior of children of the XmBulletinBoard:

These resources override the fonts defined by children of the XmBulletinBoard:

If the parent of the XmBulletinBoard is a shell widget (as it is in the standard Motif dialogs), these resources override their corresponding shell widget resources:

Other resources control the layout of the XmBulletinBoard. While most programmers consider the XmBulletinBoard to have no layout policy, this is not really true. Resources control three important exceptions:

Shell Parent Widget Resources

All shell widgets support the XmNvisual resource to specify the visual type of the shell. While Xlib supports setting different visual types for different windows in a window hierarchy, Motif widgets generally do not expose this programming interface. Instead, Motif widgets generally copy the visual type of their parent widget. If you want to set the visual type of a child widget, you should generally change the visual type of its shell widget.

XmManager Superclass Resources

While XmManager is never directly used by application programmers, it is the base class for all of Motif's composite widgets, so its resources are frequently useful. If you cannot find a feature in your composite widget's documentation, you should also look in XmManager. Some basic XmManager resources are:

XmLabel Superclass Resources

XmLabel is the superclass to all of Motif's button widgets. As you probably already know, XmLabel provides a large number of resources that control the appearance of the string or pixmap in these widgets.

XmForm Constraint Widget Resources

The XmForm is an example of a constraint widget. The XmForm defines many resources that you programatically apply to children of the XmForm, not to the XmForm itself.

You are probably already familiar with the XmForm's attachment and offset constraint resources. Another important constraint resource to remember is XmNresizable, which controls whether or not XmForm accepts size change requests from its child widgets.

XmPanedWindow Constraint Widget Resources

Many programmers do not realize that the XmPanedWindow also implements constraint resources. Its XmNallowResize resource works the same way as the XmForm's XmNresizable resource. The XmPanedWindow also implements several resources that control how the XmPanedWindow resizes its children when it itself is resized. If child widgets of your XmPanedWindow are not resizing properly, look at these XmPanedWindow constraint resources:

XmScrolledWindow Combination Widget Resources

XmScrolledWindow is an example of a combination widget. When you create an XmScrolledWindow in automatic mode, you automatically create XmScrollBar widgets and an XmDrawingArea widget for the clip window.

In some applications, you may want to manipulate the resources of these widgets. The XmScrolledWindow provides these resources to retrieve the identifiers of the child widgets: XmNclipWindow, XmNhorizontalScrollBar, and XmNverticalScrollBar. You can use these identifiers to change the colors and spacing of the scrollbars. The XmScrolledWindow documentation prohibits changing any of the scrollbars' scrolling parameters, but you can simply unmanage one of the XmScrollBar's for some one sided effects.

Since the XmNclipWindow is really a XmDrawingArea widget, you can manipulate some of its resources, too. Two interesting resources are the XmNresizeCallback and XmNresizePolicy, which can be used to manipulate your scrolling region when the XmScrolledWindow is resized.

XmMessageBox Combination Widget Resources

XmMessageBox is another combination widget. XmMessageBox automatically creates several label and button children. Unlike the XmScrolledWindow widget, it provides a convenience function for retrieving its child widgets: XmMessageBoxGetChild(). If you do not want all the default buttons, you can unmanage some of the retrieved widget identifiers.

You need not retrieve the children to change their most common resources, however. Most of XmMessageBox's resources override common child widget resources, including strings, fonts, pixmaps, and alignment.


Resources are the most important programming interface to Motif widgets, but resource documentation is often indirect and can be hard to find if you do not know where to look. Many important resources work indirectly: resources for one widget control other widgets.

In this month's column, I have discussed the important types of indirect widget resources and have given several examples. Hopefully, this material will help you get the most out of Motif's documentation and improve your user interfaces.

This column focuses on potential problems you might have with widget resource semantics. A companion paper that may also interest you focuses on common resource syntax problems.[4]


  1. Kenton Lee, "X Application Software Engineering: Editres," The X Journal, November, 1994.
  2. Open Software Foundation, OSF/Motif Reference Manual, Prentice-Hall, 1993.
  3. Motif man pages are part of OSF's Motif source code distribution and most commercial Motif binary distributions.
  4. Kenton Lee, "Widget Resource Syntax Errors," The X Journal, May, 1995.


Kenton Lee is an independent software consultant specializing in X Window System and OSF/Motif software development. He has been developing UNIX graphical user interface software since 1981.

Ken has published over two dozen technical papers on the X Window System. Most are available over the World Wide Web at

Ken may be reached by Internet electronic mail to kenton @ or the World Wide Web at

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