The X Window System is still hanging on at 40

Never underestimate the stickiness of legacy technology

It is 40 years since Robert W Scheifler ushered in the era of the X Window System, a windowing system that continues to stick around despite many distributions looking for alternatives.

Combination of a birthday cake and the Chloe BASIC startup screen

BASICally still alive: Classic language celebrates 60 years with new code and old quirks


1984 was a heady time in the computing world. Apple's Macintosh arrived at the beginning of the year. What would become the Commodore Amiga was shown off in prototype form at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), and Peter Davison turned into Colin Baker on the long-running BBC science fiction television series Doctor Who.

For Unix users, the year marked the first release of the X Window System, which would race through versions until settling on version 11 (hence X11) in 1987.

The last release, X11R7.7, emerged just over 12 years ago, and at this point, a 7.8 release looks vanishingly unlikely. However, 7.7 has been tweaked over the years with improvements and patched against vulnerabilities.

It was predated by the W Window system, and Scheifler admitted, "I stole a fair amount of code from W," in the initial announcement.

X uses a client-server model. The user's workstation is the server, and the application is the client. Both can run on the same or different machines. It also does not provide a user interface design, although it is way beyond the scope of this piece to go into the variety of graphical user interfaces that have turned up over the years.

This proliferation has its drawbacks, with different desktop environments doing things quite differently.

However, while user interfaces might have fallen in and out of favor as time has gone by, the underlying X Window System has endured over the decades.

It may not endure much longer. The Linux world has mostly moved on to other things. The system's successor, Wayland, appears to have achieved sufficient traction among the community to allow the old warhorse to finally be put out to pasture.

Wayland is now the display system of choice on the Raspberry Pi rather than X11.

In 2022, we wondered if "Wayland has what it takes to replace X." Two years later, the question is still open, although the direction of travel is clear. Yet the stickiness of "it just works" is not to be underestimated, and we would not be surprised if the 50th anniversary rolls around and there is still someone clinging to X11 for that one old app that won't run properly on anything else. ®

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