Graphical desktop system X Window just turned 38

Down but not yet on its Way(land) just yet


The X window system turned 38 years old this week, and although it has more rivals than ever, it is still the go-to for a graphical desktop on Unix.

The first public release of the X window system, according to Robert W. Scheifler's announcement, was 19 June 1984.

X itself was a rewrite of an older windowing system called W, which ran on a research microkernel OS called the V-System (V→W→X, you see.) Both the V-System and the W window system seem to have now been lost, although Bryan Lunduke has an interesting history.

About the only relic that you can see today, if you're curious, is the V-System manual [PDF].

Just two years after launch, X had already reached version 10 – the oldest point release showing in the release history on the X.org Foundation web page. X11R1 was introduced in 1987, and with some modifications, that's what the world is still using today.

That is quite a feat of longevity, considering that that's the same year as OS/2 1.0 came out, as well as Acorn's Archimedes range.

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The latest version, X11R7.7, is already a decade ago, and currently there's no timeline for a monolithic X11R7.8, let alone the barely even sketched out X12.

The X project is largely unchanging these days: we reported in 2020 that its lead maintainer had walked away. The X Consortium no longer exists, and today, X is maintained by Freedesktop.org – which is, of course, the primary body behind Wayland, the planned replacement for X.

Even so, new releases of X.11 components do appear sometimes. As we said when looking at one, many big-name distros are switching to Wayland, but every Wayland installation also includes XWayland so that traditional X.11 apps still work.

Multiple desktop environments do not support Wayland yet. The Xfce team reports that it is working on it for version 4.18.

For now, the popular Cinnamon desktop does not support it, and does not plan to. When this was officially raised as a feature request, Mint maintainer Clem Lefevbre jokingly commented to the effect that others were welcome to do it… then closed the request, as he has done before. Summary: don't expect it any time soon.

Oddly enough, although it killed the Unity desktop, Canonical is still working on its Mir display server, and this may offer a route to MATE running on Wayland. There's a prototype on the Snap store.

There are various reasons why some people don't want Wayland, or don't want it yet. Wayland's privacy controls mean that recording a video of what's happening onscreen is difficult.

One of the central functions of X is that it works over a network connection, something that Wayland by design does not do, although there are workarounds such as waypipe and wayVNC.

It could even be that something better comes along and usurps Wayland altogether. The Arcan project is working on a completely new type of display server, and has a demonstration desktop called Durden. The website is prolix to say the least, and you might get more of an overview from its wiki or simply watching some demo videos.

ChromeOS doesn't directly use either X or Wayland, but has its own Ozone tool – although this does support Wayland for running Android apps on ChromeBooks.

We're not for a moment saying that Arcan (or Ozone) will succeed or displace Wayland, but it's also not yet clear that Wayland has what it takes to replace X. We suspect X.11 will easily get to 40-plus, and that's famously where life really begins. ®


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