posted by Oscar Boykin on Wed 25th Feb 2004 08:59 UTC
IconFor the past year, there has been a slow and steady stream of news events regarding XFree86, X11, or new X server implementations. To those not paying close attention (and even those who are), the meaning of some of these events may not be clear. In this brief article, I attempt to share my impression on what the changes mean for users of free software on the desktop. It appears that XFree86 is in some turmoil, and it may leave some to infer that free desktop systems will suffer.

Editorial Notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of


In fact, the growing popularity of GNU/Linux is focusing developer attention on improving XFree86 and the XFree86 development model, or implementing a new X server which can meet the growing demands of free software on the desktop. The recent shakeups in the X11 community are pushing towards a more modular and open development model that can remedy many of longstanding criticisms leveled at the X Window System.

The X Window System is a lynchpin for the free desktop. The vast majority of Free desktop users run XFree86 today. If it is not configured properly, or not properly supported by a user's hardware, he or she cannot do graphical operations, including anything from using a windowing environment like Gnome, viewing movies, or using 3D applications. It is important to remember that XFree86 is used not just by GNU/Linux users, but also FreeBSD, OpenBSD, NetBSD, MacOS X, and even some MS Windows users. As such, many users have a stake in the future of X11 development in general, and also in XFree86 in particular.

  • X Window System (X11): a network transparent protocol for graphical display.
  • X Server: a piece of software which implements the X11 protocol. This software handles the rendering to the screen for X Clients.
  • XFree86: an open-source X server. This program is shipped with most free unix work-a-like systems, such as GNU/Linux and FreeBSD, etc., as well as by some proprietary systems, such as Apple's MacOS X. The project is led by David Dawes.
  • X Client: a piece of software that connects to an X server in order to display graphics. This is usually a graphical software program such as Mozilla.
  • Xlibs: convenience libraries which wrap the X protocol to simplify the process of writing software that can act as an X client. In principle, this software library can be used with any X server.
An excellent history of the X Window System can be found at Wikipedia. Discussions of most of the recent developments can be found in's X11 coverage. The point of this article is to provide some perspective on the meaning of these developments.

March 2003 - April 2003

The first major X event of 2003 occurred in March: Keith Packard was kicked out of the XFree86 Core Team for privately seeking support for a fork of XFree86. In April, Packard, a leader at, along with Mike Harris from Redhat held a teleconference to discuss more open X development. Several well known hackers attended. The main result of that teleconference was the establishment of a (now defunct) site to organize X development. The basic problems frustrating users and developers have to do with the slow pace of XFree86 development: patches are not accepted in a timely fashion, new drivers cannot be released without re-releasing the whole package, new developers are not readily accepted, and architectures other than x86 are not well-tested (some Debian developers share their pain). Perhaps the most important problem is the monolithic nature of the XFree86 code. The list of files alone in the 4.3.0 release of XFree86 is over 1 MB. The XFree86 team avoids external dependencies, preferring to keep their own versions of widely-used libraries like fontconfig, freetype, GNU tar, and zlib in the tree. The Xlibs are lumped into the distribution of XFree86 as well, rather than being contained in a separate module. Several X clients (such as xterm, xclock, xeyes, etc.) are also part of the distribution. The lack of modularization, along with the relatively closed development process, means that many of the purported benefits of open source development can not take hold.

Table of contents
  1. "X11 developments in 2003, Page 1/2"
  2. "X11 developments in 2003, Page 2/2"
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