X Window System: 30 years on and still going strong

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

J.A. Watson

About J.A. Watson

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 Equipment Corporation PDP-8, PDP-11 (/45 and /70) and VAX minicomputers. I was involved with the first wave of Unix-based microcomputers, in the early '80s. I have been working in software development, operation, installation and support since then.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • It was important work, no doubt

    but I have to say, I really hate X. It emphasized all the wrong things about UI. it exaggerated the slightly client server relationship of UI and OS into something way too monstrously like n-tier.... and underemphasized (rather vastly I might add) the importance of design continuity in a windowing system.... leaving the programmer to frankenstein every bad idea they ever had onto the canvas of their application.

    This is something that Windows 8 Modern and Apple's Cocoa absolutely get right. It is critical that graphical systems have a consistent design language, even to the displeasure of programmers who feel constrained by it... and not at all critical that a GUI subsystem needs to client server itself to other hosts (terminal services protocols can do that anyways.)
    • terminal services are rather hard to "cut and paste".

      X provided the first, and still only, distributed display.

      It isn't limited by a specific GUI as Windows is.

      Is it time for a new one? sure. I think the protocol could be updated to X12 with a number of things, and both simplified (in some areas) and extended in others (video, audio sharing).
      • That's actually it's weakness

        "It isn't limited by a specific GUI as Windows is."

        It really ought to have been. If it hadn't been for the emergence of a more or less standard Motif UI, X could have been a real disaster; under Motif WM it rose to its pinnacle of "uninspiring."
        • But the versitility continues even today

          Only X allows the user to switch window managers with impunity (if you don't like GNOME3, dump it; many of us have) and X is the only GUI system in common use that was designed to run over a network (RDP and VNC are helpful, but they're not nearly as convenient as popping up a remote window on your local display whenever you want one). And it runs on just about anything (I have a hard time working without an X server any more, even under Windows and OSX). And were it not for X, there probably wouldn't be any cross-platform toolkits in common use (X developers are used to writing apps not tied to a particular desktop system), tying users even more closely to their OS vendors than they already are).

          Those are features of X I have come to appreciate.
          John L. Ries
          • Not very useful these days

            Being able to bring up a remote GUI application was rather useful back in the day when we ran much of our stuff on large multi-users systems and we didn't have cross platform display capability like a web browser or a Java application. I can't even remember the last time I used a remote X client. I sure don't miss fighting with fonts.
            Buster Friendly
          • When I was an admin,

            It was used every day.

            In one instance, displays connected to 5 different supercomputers for monitoring site activity. Making a change on one to see how that was reflected by the others...

            When I was programming, very useful for connections to the server (one or more), one for each client...
          • Better ways to do that

            That's better done with SNMP or at least web based. I do remember the old days when we had "xload" and whatnot displaying on one screen in the computer room. That's pretty antiquated now.
            Buster Friendly
          • I do it every day

            It comes from working on a number of different machines (one of the things I do is cross-platform development).
            John L. Ries
          • Forgot to mention...

            ...a font server does seem to take care of most of the remote font problems, but even if one isn't running, font problems seem to be a rarity nowadays.
            John L. Ries
          • Yikes

            The font servers are even more horrible than having the display messed up from the wrong fonts.
            Buster Friendly
          • Every day

            our ERP system uses remote X Windows for running production floor touch terminals. The terminals use Atom processors and 1GB RAM and remote boot over the network using LTSP to boot up an X session to run the custom applications from the server.

            It makes the system very reliable and easy to maintain. If a terminal needs to be swapped out, we only have to register the new MAC address with the DHCP server and it is up and running, no software etc. to install and configure.
          • Must be old

            That must be a really old ERP system. As far as I know, all the major one use browser and Java based client sides. For specialty terminals, Java or RDP client is the way to go these days.
            Buster Friendly
          • Current

            the ERP system is current, still under development and is written in C/C++ for the core and the industry terminals. Analysis is done over a web browser and server side Java.

            The Java doesn't provide the speed or low level access that is needed - reading I/O cards for, automatic scales, Fat-O-Meter and responses to the server in milliseconds for controlling the PLC.

            I've worked with browser based ERP providers and our system takes over where their's stops. The web and Java based systems aren't deal with real-time data capture from industrial equipment.

            The RDP systems are better, but need additional licences from Microsoft, Citrix etc. The Linux based terminals running native touch applications are cheaper and more flexible to implement.
        • nonesense.

          Which GUI is better?

          It all depends on what it is to be used for.

          GUIs are still changing. X provides a much better exploratory platform than Windows. Touch? Visual? Icons?

          And even usable by systems that don't have displays... Which windows isn't.
        • Platform independence

          My first X Terminal was a DEC X-Terminal connected to a VAX running VMS. X was cross platform and allowed native windowing libraries to interact with the terminal.

          Although I do remember one user going overboard and opening 70 or 80 X-Eyes sessions on his terminal and then quickly moving the mouse. It clogged the 10BASE2 network and brought the Vax to its knees...
  • X Windows has security issues, some by design

    This trick involving the xinput command from Invisible Things works *by design* on Ubuntu (and, presumably, Linux Mint) desktop systems:


    And there's this gem regarding Samsung's NX300M Smart Camera running Tizen:

    "The guys from the website op-co.de have been looking at the security of the NX300M, and found its security weak in the following areas:
    o X Server (X11)
    o X11 Key Bindings"

    Hopefully, both Wayland and Mir will do better with regard to security.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
  • You can blame the US government for the security.

    Originally, all communications lines were encrypted with kerberos... but then Kerberos encryption was declared "munitions", and all of it had to be removed.
    • The aspects of public policy one doesn't understand or care about...

      ...can still hurt him. Which is why the trustworthiness of a candidate for public office is at least as important a criterion for voting as whether or not one agrees with him on the issues he does care about.
      John L. Ries
  • Not really going strong

    The sentence "the X Window System would still be the foundation for most of the graphical display systems in use today" doesn't really make sense as almost all the graphical systems in use today are based on Windows. I do remember building X back in the 80s. You would start the build on Friday and hope it was done by Monday. It's was pretty common to have displays wide open back then, and there was a whole collection of "screen hacks" we'd run on each other.
    Buster Friendly
    • Nevertheless

      It continues to be the standard GUI on every UNIX-family OS, except for MacOS X. All of those Linux desktops you keep reading about are built on top of X and they run most everywhere X does (they're not Linux only). And as long as the requisite libraries are present, an X-client really doesn't care what desktop system or window manager it's running with (makes it easy to replace one desktop with another).
      John L. Ries