Celebrating 30 Years of the X Windows System

Where were you when you first learned about open source software? If you’re under, say, the age of 40, your answer will probably be, “Come again? I’ve always known about it!” But if you’re older, you may recall the first time you ever heard the phrase. Maybe it was when Netscape announced it was going to “open source” its Navigator Browser, or perhaps when you heard the name Richard Stallman for the first time. It may also be the case that it was some time before you really got your arms around what open software (or Stallman’s Free and Open Software) really meant in all of its various connotations – license-wise, commercial and community.

Or maybe you got involved before the phrase “open source software” had even been coined (in 1998, by Bruce Perens and Eric S. Raymond) to describe what it was they were doing.

That’s what happened in my case, when one day I got a call from one of the great unsung heroes of the open source movement – Bob Scheifler, of MIT. Bob is not only a wizard with code, but he did for the X Window System – the code that enabled the GUI for the then dominant non-desktop operating system (UNIX) and is still used in Linux today – what Linus Torvalds did seven years later for Linux itself.

Which is to say that he played the central role in building and directing a large community of developers from an astonishingly broad number of companies that collaboratively and remotely built and maintained a vital system codebase at a time when that was simply not being done. Later (in 1995) the X Consortium took on the further development of Motif and the Common Desktop Environment (CDE), two additional core components of UNIX systems.

The biggest difference between what was happening then and the way things work now is that many of the developers were actually under one roof, in Cambridge, MA. As Bob put it, "The members think of us as their outsourced development shop." But then again, recall we’re speaking about a very different era of telecommunications and interconnectivity. Indeed, if you wanted a copy of X, you couldn’t download it – the code would be delivered to you on magnetic tape.

The X Windows system project was launched at MIT in 1984 by Scheifler and Jim Gettys. In an email that will remind you of the famous announcement of another vital code base, he wrote in part:

I’ve spent the last couple weeks writing a window system for the VS100. I stole a fair amount of code from W [a precursor windowing program], 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….This is not the ultimate window system, but I believe it is a good starting point for xperimentation…. There is no documentation yet; anyone crazy enough to volunteer? I may get around to it eventually…. Anyone who wants the code can come by with a tape. Anyone interested in hacking deficiencies, feel free to get in touch.

Sound a lot like a very famous code announcement created seven years later? I think so, too.

X Windows received sufficient uptake by 1987 that prominent vendors asked MIT to create a neutral governance structure along the lines of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C, already hosted by MIT) to allow them to support its further development. For a variety of reasons, a decision was made in 1993 to spin the X Consortium out of MIT, and I was brought in to help create the new incorporated, non-profit organization that would take over funding and hosting the project, to document that transfer of rights, and then to represent it going forward. Part of that work involved tweaking the BSD license to become what is still one of the most popular open source licenses: the MIT License.

Eventually, I helped the X Consortium fold the project (in 1997) into what, via the merger of the Open Software Foundation (OSF) and X/Open, had recently become today’s The OpenGroup. Post transfer, further development experienced a rather tortured course that is briefly described here, but eventually a new, independent supporting organization, the X.Org Foundation, was created in 2004, which continues to support X Windows today.

So what happened to the X Consortium itself? It was dissolved. But I vividly remember a final meeting where the decision to cease independent operations was held, and someone made the comment, “What about this Linux operating system we’re starting to hear about? Maybe we should offer to help support that?”

Obviously, Linux got along very well, thank you, without the support of the X Consortium. And in fact I’ve often thought that if Torvalds would have accepted an invitation from a group of many of the major IT vendors of the day to support his work it would have backfired. Why? Because that would have instantly catapulted Linux to a level of credibility that it did not yet have, and other vendors, like Microsoft, would have felt sufficiently threatened to try and kill the project.

Instead, the Linux effort continued to grow and grow without proprietary vendors realizing the competitive threat it presented until the momentum of Linux could no longer be broken – and then almost all of them were delighted to hop on the bus. Today, of course, the Linux Foundation fills the role that the X Consortium did not. And that’s a good thing.

So the next time that you use Linux, you can reflect on this largely forgotten bit of history that lies behind an important codebase that lives on inside it today.

Psst – yes you!  Wanna read a good book?

Press release from X.Org Foundation:

The X.Org Foundation is proud to announce a special birthday: 30 years ago, on 19 June 1984, Bob Scheifler announced the X Window System.


Over these 30 years, X has come to be the base for Unix desktops everywhere.
With desktop environments such as GNOME, KDE, XFCE, Unity, Enlightenment,
millions of users are using X as the underlying technology today.

The X developers have pushed the boundaries and moved X from a system
originally written to run on the CPU of a VAX VS100 to one that runs the
GUI on today’s laptops with 3D rendering capabilities. Indeed, X predates
the concept of a Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) as we currently know it, and
even the company that popularized this term in 1999, Nvidia.

X continues to see improvements and despite its long service record, it will
stay with us for a while longer.

And in case you’re wondering, X predates:
* Linux, FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, Solaris, Microsoft Windows
* POSIX, C89, C99, C++, Java
* the World Wide Web
* the GPL and the FSF

X was one of the first major open source software projects, years before the
terms Free Software and Open Source Software were commonplace. Celebrate with
us, for without X, the desktop would not be what it is today.

– The X.Org Board of Directors