Originally Published: Tuesday, 25 July 2000 Author: Monty Manley
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

The X Window System Must Die!

I have always been exasperated that Unix systems chose to standardize on the X Window System. X was a decent solution in the days when computers used low-color unaccelerated frame-buffers for graphics, and needed to communicate over low-bandwidth links; but X's time is long past. It survives mainly because no one is willing to throw it away -- there's too much software now that depends on it.

   Page 1 of 1  

I happen to believe that efficiency and clarity in software is a good thing in its own right -- many benefits are conferred to software simply as side-effects. And usually, "efficient" is synonymous with "small".

Most of the great software-engineering gurus throughout the years (people like Fred Brooks, Rob Pike, Ken Thompson, and Dennis Ritchie) would agree with the above statement. Yet the history of software is one of insidious bloat. Systems that started out lean and fast (Unix's original kernel was comprised of about 10,000 lines of code!) grow into lumbering monstrosities with codebases so frightfully complex that maintenance is almost impossible. It's probably a true statement that no useful program ever got *smaller* over time -- programmers are notorious for sticking in new features rather than fixing old bugs.

I had occasion to think of this issue recently when a reader of one of my previous essays wrote to me and rhapsodized about how efficient Linux is. I heard much the same thing from proponents of FreeBSD.

Well, I hate to burst your bubble, folks: Linux (and even the FreeBSD to a lesser extent) is just as overweight as most other operating systems these days. The kernel alone (when compiled), can take up anywhere from 700K to 1.2MB, depending on the configuration and whether drivers are compiled in. The GNU C library is likewise huge, nearly twice the size of the comparable BSD C library.

But the most egregious offender in this area, the reigning champ of bloat, is the X Window System.

X Must Die!

I have always been exasperated that Unix systems chose to standardize on the X Window System. X was a decent solution in the days when computers used low-color unaccelerated frame-buffers for graphics, and needed to communicate over low-bandwidth links; but X's time is long past. It survives mainly because no one is willing to throw it away -- there's too much software now that depends on it.

X11, even with the yeoman work done by the XFree group, is a huge rat's nest of code which can't compete with most other graphics systems performance-wise. It can only use vector fonts with great difficulty, and anti-aliased fonts (which have been staples of both the Mac and Windows for years) is still a dream on X.

But X cannot live on its own: it needs a Window Manager and a widget toolkit to do anything. More millions of lines of code, layered on top of an already overweight system. GNOME, KDE, even Motif exact a huge performance hit and add further complexity. Worse yet, no one in the Unix community seems to be able to agree on any kind of GUI standard, so you have an explosion of window managers, desktops, file managers, and widget toolkits which are mostly inoperable with each other.

I had high hopes for GnuStep, an Open Source port of NeXT's OpenStep environment; it built on the excellent and coherent NeXT interface. However, it seems like this project (like Gnu's HURD kernel) is stuck in eternal limbo. GNOME and KDE are now fighting for primacy and neither GUI really addresses X's weaknesses.

It is this problem more than any other that makes using Unix and unix-clones a trial for many people, and it is why I hesitate to write software for a platform I consider both elderly and unreliable. I contend that it is impossible to write a truly robust X application because X itself is such a gruesome hack job.

Kill X. Now. No more Band-Aids, redesigns, or updates. Port GTK and QT (the toolkits used by GNOME and KDE, respectively) to a new graphics architecture. It's long past time.

Is It Impossible?

Here's a challenge for the Linuxcommunity. Consider it a gauntlet thrown down.

Pack the following elements onto a *single* 1.44MB floppy disk: a current kernel (with TCP/IP stack), PPP *or* network card driver(s), a basic X Window setup (*with* a window manager), a graphical text editor, a lightweight web browser, and a basic shell (ash would be fine). Feel free to use whatever means of magic necessary to pack everything onto a single floppy disk.

What do you want to bet that no one takes me up on this?

"That's impossible!" some might say. Not so. QNX has done it; you can find their demo floppy at http://www.qnx.com/demodisk/. The first time I tried it, I was flabbergasted; they somehow managed to shoehorn not only the core OS and windowing system onto a floppy, but also a small web browser! (Dan Hildebrand, the genius behind this effort, tragically died of cancer in 1998. He was a truly godlike hacker and will be sorely missed.)

I'd never realized how *huge* Linux was until I saw the QNX demo. And I don't mean "huge" in terms of the number of packages installed; I mean *huge* in the sense that Linux's kernel takes up almost as much space as the *entire QNX operating environment*! Linus may not like microkernel architectures, but the QNX demo pretty decisively shows the benefits of a small and modular approach versus the monolithic one. The Photon MicroGUI is not only vastly smaller than X, it also does vector fonts and anti-aliasing, which is beyond X's capacity at present. Further, it has native Unicode support, which X lacks.

The R&D Edge

The Open Source software library (Linux, the *BSD's, and so on) is mainly composed of *reactive* technologies -- they adopt what has already been done in the industry, and duplicate it in free software. This free software is occasionally enhanced, but usually the Open Source product is a workalike (with bug-fixes) rather than an innovation.

A weakness of the Open Source model is that it is very difficult to do Research and Development. It's not surprising that Linux has had such a hard time getting a modern desktop GUI; until fairly recently, there was no coordinated effort to produce one. And these GUIs (GNOME and KDE) are mainly copies of Windows; they introduce very little that is new.

Apple, on the other hand, has truly extended the GUI with their upcoming Mac OS X. The graphics system contains a plethora of new stuff: a PDF-based 2-D imaging model, accelerated OpenGL, and the "Aqua" GUI layer. Love Aqua or hate it (Mac folks seem divided on the issue), you can't deny that it's interesting: its use of icons, colors, animation, and alpha-transparency are pretty novel (although not truly new). It took the Linux world about ten minutes to whip up a "skin" for the popular window managers to make them look like Aqua. Much the same thing happened with the NeXTStep look-and-feel.

It's interesting to note that no one in the Open Source community *invented* any GUI of note; they simply built on someone else's R&D. FVWM was a pretty straightforward rip of the Motif Window Manager. AfterStep and WindowMaker are copies of NeXTStep. IceWM is a copy of Windows 95/98. GNOME and KDE are also Windows look-alikes. There are copies of Open Look (invented by Sun), the Mac, the Amiga, and so on, but nothing really original. Enlightenment comes the closest to an "original" GUI, and it's an utter train-wreck from a usability standpoint.

The phrase "user testing" is unknown to Open Source coders, who will pick gee-whiz graphics over usability any day. Apple has spent millions over the years in focus groups, user meetings, and biometrics studies to figure out exactly how GUIs should look and behave. They don't always succeed (just look at the QuickTime Player 4 for a lousy interface), but in many ways the Mac is still the gold standard for GUIs.

This tendency of Open Source programmers to copy or re-engineer rather than invent is a good thing overall (it saves a lot of wasted effort and traveling down blind alleys), but it does have a downside: the codebase of such programs, unless carefully controlled, rapidly degenerate into huge piles of spaghetti code.


Unix in all its incarnations is probably a lost cause in this sense. It's extremely unlikely that X will be replaced anytime soon. Oh, sure, X will (hopefully) gain features like anti-aliasing and native handling of vector fonts. The codebase will become ever more complicated and hard to maintain.

I frankly don't see much light at the end of the tunnel. X is too deeply embedded in the Unix world to be easily dislodged, and the lack of a GUI standard on the platform doesn't appear likely to be resolved. Maybe the embedded space can offer some salvation -- programmers will *have* to forgo X to run on smaller devices, and perhaps this will be the wedge that gets X out of all our lives.

Let's hope so.


For an interesting take on how and why most X window managers suck, check out Asktog.com First Principles. It was written by Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini, a UI guru of large repute. It's an eye-opening essay, and should be read by more UI designers.

Monty Manley is 33 years old and has been programming for more than half his life, on everything from a Vic 20 to an IBM 390 mainframe. He forms part of the hated power elite of white males who hold down programming jobs. He currently lives in Minnesota with his wife, two cats, two rats, and a mole who decided to make a home in his front yard.

This article orginally appeared at ospinion.com and is under the OpenContent License.

   Page 1 of 1