X Window System: 30 years on and still going strong

Summary:It's been 30 years since the birth of the X Window System. Here's what I remember of those early days.

This afternoon I came across an announcement of the 30th anniversary of the first release of the X Window System.  Wow, did that ever bring back some memories! If you will permit me a bit of reminiscing and nostalgia (apologies in advance to those who already think that I am a "dinosaur" or "past my sell-by date"), I hope that this anniversary might bring back some pleasant memories for others as well.

X was one of the first major open source software projects, years before the terms 'free software' or 'open source software' were commonplace.

In the late '80s I was working for some friends at what was then a very progressive-thinking company, even by Swiss standards. We were doing software development, and we needed a good, portable graphic display environment for our application. So we settled on the X Window System, and I used to get the source code of every new release.

For those too young to remember pre-internet days, "get the source code" at that time meant that I had to order nine-track magnetic tapes from MIT, and wait for the postal service to deliver them across the Atlantic. There were problems with language, currency, delivery, and probably various other things that I don't remember any more, so the whole process was more than a bit of a pain.

I like to help others when I can, so I decided to offer to send a copy of the X sources to anyone in Europe who wanted it, and who didn't have the time, money, patience or whatever to get it from MIT. Because my employers at that time were quite generous, and were good friends of mine, they agreed to pay for the media (mostly QIC tape cartridges, but occasionally DECtape or open-reel tapes), and for the postage if I would do the "grunt" work of actually making the copes and preparing the packages.

No payment was ever requested or accepted from the recipients, although I did get a variety of pens, coffee cups and the like.

I posted notices in a few Usenet groups. The response was not massive, but it was still more than I originally expected: once things settled down, I was sending out about 50 to 100 copies of each new release.  Destinations were literally all over Europe, from Ireland to Yugoslavia (before the split) and maybe even further that I am not remembering now. One of the nicest offers I got in return for a tape was to visit a university in Yugoslavia (Sarajevo, I think; might have been Split), again this was before the war. Unfortunately, I passed up the opportunity.

Anyway, in those days who would have ever thought that after 30 years, the X Window System would still be the foundation for most of the graphical display systems in use today. 

There are challengers coming up — Wayland and Mir, of course — but as of right now, they still have a way to go before they are proven and accepted into general use. 

So here I am, raising a glass of wine to toast the people who had the vision, dedication and talent to conceive and develop the X Window System, and everyone else who has worked very hard for so very many years to continue to develop, improve and maintain it. Congratulations.

Further reading

Topics: Enterprise Software, Open Source

About

I started working with what we called "analog computers" in aircraft maintenance with the United States Air Force in 1970. After finishing military service and returning to university, I was introduced to microprocessors and machine language programming on Intel 4040 processors. After that I also worked on, operated and programmed Digital... Full Bio

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