Twenty years of X11
As some of you know, I do the occasional technical edit for a book. I find it relaxing, interesting, and educating.
Hey, you have your hobbies, I have mine.
Anyway, I recently completed editing Chris Tyler’s X Power Tools – a book on how Unix and Linux systems handle windows and such. It made me think a bit. See, X11 was released in 1987. Back then, I wasn’t terribly interested in learning its intricacies, being far more involved in learning how to ride a bike and catch a ball. (The “catching a ball” bit took many more years to master, perhaps I should have focused on X11 instead). As I recall, in 1987, there was a small amount of discussion on the relative merits of NeWS vs X11, however most people were more concerned with issues like the Iran/Iraq war, the world population reaching five billion people and the Iran-Contra affair. At the same time that Bob Scheifler and Jim Gettys were writing X11, Los Lobos were writing their version of “La Bamba” and Peter Wolf (Wang Chung) was writing “Everybody Have Fun Tonight”.
So, fast forward by twenty years and join me here in 2007. The world population is now 6.6 billion, no one really thinks much about the Contras, and I suspect that a lot fewer people are dancing around singing “La Bamba”. However, an estimated 29 million people are using X11. That’s more people than are listening to Wang Chung (I hope).
So, what is it that gave this humble display protocol such staying power and allowed its usage to increase while other 1987 events are hardly even recognizable? Perhaps it is that X11 is inherently visual, rendering it usable from China to India to the US? I’m sure that the average Chinese computer user has a bit more trouble understanding Los Lobos. Perhaps it is the fact that it was built by a unified team and released to the world for free, thus eliminating the need for a middle man like Oliver North.
Perhaps. . . But I don’t think so.
See, I use X every day. I have since around 1999. However, at no point do I wake up and think “Yay! I get to use the X11 display system today!”. No, I just sit down at my computer and get to work. I move windows from desktop to desktop. I make them big, make them small, and make them hide away like little frightened squirrels. And these days, I even make them translucent, wobbly, three dimensional, and can set fire to them if I get bored (the windows, not the squirrels). Sure, I may get a small feeling of glee when I make a window burn up and go away, but am I sitting here thinking about all the work that Bob Scheifler and Jim Gettys put into the system to allow me to be nonproductive in such an enjoyable way? No, I just sit there and use the system.
There are three other systems that I use on a daily basis without thinking about it. When I wake up, I turn off my alarm clock, turn on my light, take a shower, get dressed, open the garage, drive into work, park, lock the car, and start my day. To do so, I use the electrical system, the water system, and highway system. At no point am I blessing Tesla and Edison, or the Romans… or the Romans. (Wow, those Romans were a smart bunch, weren’t they? Too bad about the lead poisoning.)
Nope, I just use them because they are there. That’s what infrastructure is for. You can tell when a technology moves from being “technology” to “infrastructure” when you no longer notice it. A widget is a thing that is either bright and shiny or breaks when you need to use it. Sadly, these two often go together. Infrastructure is something that you never notice until it fails to give you the seamless experience that you are used to.
Note that. The key difference is not that infrastructure is noticeable when it breaks… it’s noticeable when it breaks and keeps working. You complain about the power company when there are brown outs, the water company when the water tastes funny, and the DoT when the roads get pot-holes. In all of these cases, you can still use your devices, drink your water, and get to work. It’s just not as pleasant as it was before. That’s huge. It means that the technology got so close to perfect that you don’t notice it anymore.
That’s the beauty of X11. When I was first starting with Linux, it was sometimes hard to get it to work (See Basic X.Org Configuration). Then, as I got better, I would sometimes run into some odd problems (See Advanced X.Org Configuration). I used to have problems with fonts and colors (See the Fonts and Colors sections). More recently, I have needed to build kiosks (Yep, there’s a Kiosk section) remotely access servers (That in the book too) and turn on fancy effects (I’ll let you guess on this one).
Today, I can use X11 and the tips in X Power Tools to:
- Build one server that can give up to 10 school children their own desktop . . . simultaneously
- Build a kiosk system that provides point of service for years without maintenance
- Configure a single interface that works identically on an 800×600 CRT monitor, a 5120×3200 LCD wide-screen monitor, an HDTV, or even a normal (old school) television
- Connect to a server on the other side of the world and see a graphical screen just as if I were sitting in front of it
- Use a keyboard and mouse from 1987, 1997, or 2007 — often without a configuration change. I can use strange hardware such as tablets, touch-pads, and high-end multi-head video cards
I can all of this with the same protocol developed in 1987. That’s good design.
I learned to do all this in the same amount of time that it took me to learn to catch a ball. I can do it as easily as riding a bike. If I had had Chris Tyler‘s book in 1999, I could have done it much more quickly and easily. That’s good writing.
So, if you use a computer and want an edge over the extra 1.4 billion people that will be here by 2027. If you’re tired of listening to Wang Chung and Los Lobos. If you don’t want to think about the upcoming Iran/Iraq war, then pick up copy of X Power Tools. Take a few hours and learn about the past, present, and future of how people use computers.
Have some fun tonight.