The X Windowing System turns 40 today

Today just so happens to be the 40th birthday of X, the venerable windowing system that’s on its way out, at least in the Linux world. From the original announcement by Robert W. Scheifler:

I’ve spent the last couple weeks writing a window system for the VS100. I stole a fair amount of code from W, surrounded it with an asynchronous rather than a synchronous interface, and called it X. Overall performance appears to be about twice that of W. The code seems fairly solid at this point, although there are still some deficiencies to be fixed up.

We at LCS have stopped using W, and are now actively building applications on X. Anyone else using W should seriously consider switching. This is not the ultimate window system, but I believe it is a good starting point for experimentation. Right at the moment there is a CLU (and an Argus) interface to X; a C interface is in the works. The three existing applications are a text editor (TED), an Argus I/O interface, and a primitive window manager. There is no documentation yet; anyone crazy enough to volunteer? I may get around to it eventually.

↫ Robert W. Scheifler

Reading this announcement email made me wonder if way back then, in 1984, the year of my birth, there were also people poo-pooing this new thing called “X” for not having all the features W had. There must’ve people posting angry messages on various BBS servers about how X is dumb and useless since it doesn’t have their feature in W that allows them to use an acoustic modem to send a signal over their internal telephone system by slapping their terminal in just the right spot to activate their Betamax that’s hotwired into the telephone system.

I mean, W was only about a year old at the time, so probably not, but there must’ve been a lot of complaining and whining about this newfangled X thing, and now, 40 years later, long after it has outgrown its usefulness, we’re again dealing with people so hell-bent on keeping an outdated system running but hoping – nay, demanding – others to do the actual work of maintaining it.

X served its purpose. It took way too long, but we’ve moved on. Virtually every new Linux user since roughly 12-24 months ago will most likely never use X, and never even know what it was. They’re using a more modern, more stable, more performant, more secure, and better maintained system, leading to a better user experience, and that’s something we should all agree on is a good thing.


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